Mitt Romney has three houses. The former Massachusetts governor would like to do a $12 million "fix-up" on one of them, a beachfront property in La Jolla, Calif. The plan is to tear down the existing 3,000-square-foot structure and build an 8,100-square-foot replacement, plus a car elevator.
Within the top sliver of the richest 1 percent -- in which Romney holds secure membership -- such extravagant displays are not unusual. But Romney is also the likely Republican candidate for president. He seems unable to connect the two.
We've had great presidents who were rich and privileged, the two Roosevelts being examples. But Romney has crossed the border from rich to super-in-your-face rich. The idea of building a private Xanadu on the Pacific doesn't quite work with the one of winning over anxiety-ridden middle-class voters. You really have to question the guy's judgment.
Romney is certainly not the first politician whose grandiose lifestyle came under harsh scrutiny. Former Vice President Al Gore, the Democrats' 2000 presidential choice, famously owns a 20-room Nashville mansion plus pool house. Critics chided him for pounding the lectern over the threat of global warming while consuming enough electricity to power a small village in Morocco. They had a point.
But "inconsistency" aside, the worry about politicians swaddled in cashmere is this: Can they serve the American people if their experience of America is limited by their platinum surroundings?
Consider how Romney's father lived. The CEO of American Motors and later Michigan governor, George Romney was a rich man. But he put his family in a 5,500-square-foot house that -- though located in Detroit's comfy Palmer Woods neighborhood -- would have been merely upper middle class by today's yardstick of residential splendor. (Interesting that when the feds took over the beach house of swindler Bernard Madoff, the media expressed surprise at its modest size. The Montauk Point, N.Y., hideaway was a mere 3,014 square feet.)
Romney's luxury-home portfolio includes a six-bedroom contemporary sitting on 11 choice acres along the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee, in the resort town of Wolfeboro, N.H. Real estate experts value the 5,400-square-foot residence plus separate guest house at around $10 million. The family also has a townhouse outside of Boston, covering a mere 2,100 square feet. (We must also mention the Romneys' 9,514-square-foot extravaganza in the plush skiing resort of Park City, Utah, sold in 2009.)
What's notable about Romney's real-estate holdings, including the townhouse, is how totally they physically separate him from the rest of humanity. One can easily drop a dozen million dollars on a house in San Francisco or Manhattan, but the homeowner who walks out the front door goes cheek-by-jowl with other kinds of people. His father's house put the family within the borders of a teaming blue-collar city. What Romney has done is create a coast-to-coast buffer zone of luxury.
Note that the Romneys' only arguably middle-class residence is in Massachusetts. For the two years before buying it, Romney claimed the basement of his son's nearby house as his legal residence. Has he treated the state where he served as governor as merely a mailing address? Furthermore, does anyone who has three houses, two of them ginormous, really live anywhere? Or is he merely the globe-trolling private-equity zillionaire, happy wherever other rich people congregate?
Previous political gaffes -- like casually mentioning his wife's two Cadillacs -- have created the storyline that Romney hasn't the foggiest idea how ordinary Americans go through their days. Choosing this time to construct a Pacific palace really makes you wonder what's going on in Romney's head -- and whether he has much idea of what's going on in anyone else's.
Froma Harrop's email address is email@example.com.