Gail Collins: A million bucks isn’t what it used to be

Published: Thursday, May. 1, 2014 - 9:14 am

It’s sad what a million dollars has fallen to.

I have been thinking about this recently, ever since The New York Times had an article about Jeb Bush’s scramble to make up for the fact that he left the governorship of Florida with a net worth of only $1.3 million.

I have to admit, I was surprised that Bush did not have more money than that. He must have felt terrible at family gatherings. When they started planning for Christmas, do you think the other Bushes assured Jeb that they’d be happy with a pot holder or a knitted scarf, just as long as it was handmade?

The article, reported by Michael Barbaro, had a happy ending. Bush is now making more than $1 million a year just for giving advice to Barclays bank. Which is hardly his only job. He has a ton of gigs like that. People are lining up to pay vast sums for the man’s opinion.

A million dollars used to be a magic number, a sign of permanent affluence. You’d made it! But now it won’t buy you lunch with Warren Buffett (the winning bidder in a charity auction paid $1,000,100) or even, it appears, a public defender. The lawyers for the allegedly indigent former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his father billed the government more than $1 million during their public corruption trial. Senior citizen thug Whitey Bulger’s defense cost taxpayers more than $3 million.

Most Americans’ reverence for the million-dollar figure is based on the fact that they do not have a million dollars themselves and are not seeing any signs that Barclays will want to give it to them for a year’s worth of consultation. But there are also a lot of old cultural memories.

Back in the 1950s, people were watching Marilyn Monroe in “How to Marry a Millionaire” and on television, “The Millionaire.” That was the series about a superrich guy named John Beresford Tipton, who liked to send $1 million to total strangers. Secret gifts that changed their lives, although often not for the better. John Beresford Tipton was a little like the Koch brothers, except his checks were smaller and the recipients were not required to plot against solar energy.

“How to Marry a Millionaire” was the story of three women who were looking for rich consorts who would support them in the style to which they wished to become accustomed. Since it was the ‘50s, the plot held they were looking for “husbands” - and nobody ever suggested that a million dollars would not be enough to keep a kept girl fed and sheltered.

But now we have learned from the ongoing Los Angeles Clippers crisis that owner Donald Sterling spent $1.8 million just to buy his lady friend a duplex. This information is contained in a lawsuit brought against the woman in question, V. Stiviano, by Sterling’s estranged wife. Stiviano’s lawyer has not denied the part about the gifts, although he says there is not a “peppercorn of a fact” that any fraud was involved.

While the world can’t wait for Sterling to vanish from our collective consciousness forever, I wouldn’t mind keeping a “peppercorn of a fact.”

But to get back to politics: A million dollars will get you Jeb Bush’s advice. Also, it will buy a visit from Hillary Clinton. Four, in fact – she gets around $250,000 per appearance. When someone in the audience threw a shoe at her recently, she was speaking at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

Hillary dodged the stiletto with quite a bit of dexterity and grace. But you had to ask: Why is this woman giving a paid talk to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries? The Clintons came out of the White House with very little cash, but there’s got to be a point when you stop making up for lost time.

It’s not that money doesn’t buy happiness. It’s that these days it requires a whole lot more than a million dollars. More than half of all the members of Congress are now millionaires, but many of them don’t seem to be all that thrilled about their financial condition.

“They feel: ‘We’re so underpaid,'” said Fred Wertheimer, the campaign finance reform activist.

Once politicians get to Congress, they become acquainted with people who are truly rich. That’s pretty much a necessity because re-election is something else you cannot generally buy for a million dollars. Suddenly, they’re hanging out with folks who have private jets and four houses.

Eventually, many lawmakers begin to feel as though they are making an enormous sacrifice by holding public office for $174,000 a year. And then they’re off to a D.C. law firm or lobbying job, which will pay them huge salaries for knowing the people they know. It will never occur to them that if voters had not given them that stint of public service, they would be processing divorce cases back home in East Cupcake.

Read more articles by Gail Collins



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