Nothing in the political world says “kick me” more loudly than an elected official’s huge house. Or houses.
Most people consider their own homes to be their figurative castles. But when political leaders’ “castles” are literally palaces, a country’s citizenry often seethes, preparing for that moment when it can finally storm the palace walls. From Russia to Turkey, immodest presidential living with Versailles-level luxury has become au courant and de rigueur.
Ask Viktor Yanukovych. The former Ukraine president speedily fled to a harboring Russia a year ago and now resides far from his “Mezhyhirya” gold-encrusted Kiev-suburb villa. The erstwhile hunting lodge was estimated to cost $100 million and became the symbol of his personal corruption and his regime’s excesses. The residence was turned over to the Ukrainian people last week by state courts, and Yanukovych remains a wanted man by Interpol.
Yanukovych is unlikely living the same life of luxury, which has to rankle a bit as he looks over the Black Sea fence at the new Russian palace built as a tribute to the amassed wealth, power and vanity of President Vladimir Putin. Power lines, roads, helicopter landing pads, guest quarters, surrounding land and first-class fixtures and features peg Putin’s sparkling pleasure dome at a billion dollars.
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Officially, the marble mega-mansion is privately owned by someone other than Putin. Unofficially, popularly and according to Sergei Kolesnikov, a former Putin business associate who now lives outside Russia and blew the whistle on the president’s shady business ventures, the villa is Putin’s personal playground. The main underwriting mechanism for construction, according to Kolesnikov, was “corruption, bribery and theft.”
Not to be outdone, Turkey’s new President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long planned for his ascension, increased comfort and the inevitable need for large-scale entertaining by building a 1,000-room presidential palace in Ankara. The price? Around $615 million, according to the BBC. Erdogan detractors and political opponents object to the monthly $313,000 electricity bill. The imperious president asserts that the palace is a “show of the country’s prestige.” For both Putin and Erdogan, size clearly matters.
Presidential homes need not be outrageously expensive or lavish to attract voter attention. Closer to home, Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto is facing political flak, with journalists increasingly asking questions surrounding the financing of a lovely, but comparatively reasonably priced $7 million private home purchased by the president’s “telenovela” star wife, Angelica Rivera.
Accused of kickbacks and sweetheart deals involving a Chinese high-speed rail contract, Peña Nieto has taken aggressive action to clear himself of popular corruption charges by ordering an investigation into the matter earlier this week. Acutely conscious of the controversy surrounding his house, he said: “I am conscious that the events generated the appearance of something improper … something that in reality did not occur.”
Americans have no cause to feel holier-than-thou regarding presidential (or presidential-hopeful) palaces. In fact, Americans have an allergic reaction to candidates who live lavishly. It was Mitt Romney’s multiple million-dollar houses and his La Jolla house car elevator that added to his caricature of being aloof and insensitive to popular pain during the Great Recession.
And Sen. John Edwards liked to play to the little guy, reminding voters of his working-class background, but his 28,200-square-foot North Carolina manse on 102 private acres belied a different and hyper-hypocritical image.
Authoritarians have less to worry about in the short term as do politicians living in robust democracies. Putin and Erdogan seem safe for now, and future elections may not have as much of an effect on their political survival as a sudden and unexpected future popular uprising may. As this country hurtles toward 2016, however, presidential candidates would do well to heed any warnings that they live lives of excess. Chris Christie, beware.
Jerry Brown is, of course, a notable exception. No gubernatorial mansion, no gold-plated bathroom faucets, no helipads. During his first term, when he was much younger and single, he slept on a mattress on the floor of an apartment near the Capitol and drove a beater. He spends time between a Sacramento apartment and a place in the Oakland Hills. Putin and Erdogan could learn a lesson or two in ascetic chic – and political longevity – from our frugal guv.