John McCain can't remember how many houses he has. Immediately, he's hit by some with the charge of being an elitist.
Yet I recall watching an episode of Oprah once — only once — where she stated with a straight face that she was really upset because she had been about to make a meal when she realized she'd left her favorite cooking pan "in my other house." And all the nice suburban ladies trying to get by with their median household income of $48K did not bat an eye. She's Oprah. She's supposed to have many houses and favorite cooking pans.
Now, obviously, Oprah's not running for president. But she could, and she might just win. We love her for being so much more fabulous than us.
And, so, this is our public conundrum: What exactly is the elitist tipping point? Where does regular end and aristocratic begin? Is it a dollar amount? An attitude? Can one be poor and out of touch, rich and down to Earth? It's almost become an annual ritual: Fortune 500 companies revealing their executives' compensation to much public ire. But when a guy like Bill Gates — off and on the richest man on Earth — reveals that he often flies coach, he's derided as being either a skinflint or too showy with his austerity.
In every election cycle that I can recall there comes a moment — or a few — where charges of elitism and claims of commonness are wielded by presidential candidates like a sword and shield: Vote for me 'cause I'm one of you. It's the other guy who's out of touch.
Folksiness is a queer thing. You can be from a well-to-do family, attend an Ivy League school and be a "regular Joe" like George W. Bush, or you can be from a well-to-do family, attend an Ivy League school and be haut monde like John Kerry.
Or you can grow up living on food stamps in a single-parent home, attend an Ivy League school and be an "elitist" like Barack Obama for implying that people get upset and myopic when they lose their jobs.
Though it's nearly undefinable, elitism's like porn: You know it when you see it, and what somebody else likes doesn't necessarily turn you on.
And yet, we're electing the president of the U.S., still the most powerful person in the world. I don't want an underachiever working on my car's transmission. Why would I want someone regular sitting in the Oval Office? Sorry, give me somebody who has demonstrated a capacity to excel.
The cliche gotcha question of journalism is asking candidates the price of a gallon of gas at a particular locale. Can the candidate demonstrate with a single answer that he (or she) is a person of the people? Brother, I don't care if the candidate knows the local price of gas. I care if he fully understands the metrics that drive up or down a barrel of oil.
So the question isn't how many houses John McCain owns. The question is: Does he understand what's negatively affecting the equity of those houses, and what can be done about it, and how such gross fluctuations can be prevented in the future?
He'd better hope he doesn't have to check with his staff to answer that one.