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On my 60th birthday my wife gave me a framed photograph of a…toad. Not just any toad, mind you, but one of the warty amphibians that occupy our yard here in central Illinois. In addition, my lovely daughter called from Washington state, my parents and my friends sent texts and emails, and congratulatory calls came in from as far as Sweden and Washington, DC.
I appreciated all the attention as I transitioned to the beginning of my sexagenarian years, but really I was not big on announcing to the world that I am around two-thirds (possibly less) through my life and still not famous or wealthy.
Former President Barack Obama viewed his 60th birthday very differently. Considering the original planned spectacle at his $12 million, 30-acre oceanfront estate on Martha’s Vineyard that reportedly included a guest list of 475 special folks, a performance by Pearl Jam and 200 staff to attend to all their celebrity needs, one might be forgiven for thinking that another former president was hosting a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago.
But today, news broke that at the last minute Obama had scaled back this lavish fête to just include immediate family and close friends. According to reporting by the New York Times, Obama flack-for-life David Axelrod said, “They’ve been concerned about the virus from the beginning, asking invited guests if they had been vaccinated, requesting that they get a test proximate to the event. But when this was planned, the situation was quite different. So they responded to the changing circumstances.”
Whatever, Dave. Closer to the truth, surely, “changing circumstances” included getting vilified for deciding to host a huge event in the face of the rapidly spreading delta variant.
This little gala, we were assured, would in no way resemble one of those super-spreader events such as those knuckle-dragging Republicans hold. The Obamas — who always do the right, woke Democratic thing — had hired a Covid coordinator to make darn sure that glitterati like George Clooney, Steven Spielberg and Oprah would be safe.
Still, the very idea of holding such an over-the-top expensive bash when Covid is again on the rise and so many Americans are grieving for loses of loved ones, jobs and housing was the worst kind of optics.
Criticizing anything President Obama does runs the risk of a fevered blowback. You will be thrown to the lions on social media and lumped in the same extreme group as Marjorie Taylor Greene, the pillow guy and other bottom-of-the-barrel MAGA scum.
Liberals, and I count myself among them — although I have always been to the left of the Democratic party — have elevated the Obama presidency to religious levels. He walks on water! But place his eight years at the Resolute desk in context. Consider how low the bar was after eight years of enduring war-mongering George W Bush and then four years of grifter-in-chief Donald Trump. And time has a way of hiding most blemishes while glorifying even the most minor of accomplishments. As golfer Lee Trevino once said, “The older I get, the better I used to be.”
So, my liberal comrades will roar, after all Obama has done, shouldn’t he have been able to party like it’s 2008? Well, not really.
The increasingly privileged opulence that now goes hand-in-hand with being an American politician is something that has always bothered me. Why is it that a senator, House member or president becomes, over time, fabulously wealthy? Put aside the sad fact that you need to be rich to run for those offices, and watch the accumulation of riches accrue over time. Book contracts. Movie deals. Board appointments. Insider stock buys and shady stock sell-offs. The politician’s gilded life also includes taxpayer-sponsored security details, second and third homes, the best tables at restaurants, priority screening at airports as you flee to Cancun, and so on and so on. Apparently being a politician is less about effecting chance for the average citizen and more about establishing a brand. Who needs idealism, after all, when you can have a well-connected agent?
The Obamas are, undoubtedly, a brand. They are attractive, whip-smart and now lavishly wealthy. According to the International Business Times, when you add up the multi-million-dollar book advances, the Netflix production deal and lucrative speaking engagements, the Obamas’ net worth comes in at around $70 million. Other publications place that figure much higher. CNN Money stated that the Obamas entered the White House in 2008 with a net worth of $1.3 million.
The Obamas’ best traits are admirable and, most importantly, inspirational for many young people, and I hope that over time the Obamas will contribute their wealth and status mightily to the wellbeing of our troubled nation.
“For of those to whom much is given, much is required,” John Kennedy said. That is why I was annoyed at this extravagant soiree. I hold the Obamas to a higher standard than, let’s say, Jeff Bezos. I expect them not to act like every other multi-millionaire. To not cozy up with the one-percenters and the A-listers quite so much. To not flaunt their wealth during a pandemic when the coronavirus is aflame. To set a better example.
Here’s another quote: “Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential.” President Obama said that when he was in his 40s. Seems like a million, or 70 million, years ago.
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of five books of essays and journalism. His newest book is “West of East”