Although Mitt Romneyis now on the brink of nomination as the 2012 Republican presidential standard-bearer, the question remains as to why so much doubt lingers about him. A central concern seems to be that he's just too rich to understand the problems of the rest of us.
It's not that he's the first political figure to run for presidency rolling in dough. Thomas Jefferson,Franklin D. Roosevelt,John F. Kennedy and both George Bushes all won the office despite the misfortune of never having to worry where their next square meal was coming from.
F. Scott Fitzgeraldwas onto something when he wrote that the rich are "different from you and me." So was 1976 Democratic presidential candidate Mo Udall in observing that he had been rich and he had been poor, and rich was better. It's the operative notion in the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon that pits the 99 percent against the one-percenters.
But there's something about the former Massachusetts governor that makes his millions stand out like a dollar sign branded on his chest, for all his tie-less, unbuttoned-collar and pressed-jeans decor on the campaign trail. It's not like he's some pompous stuffed shirt. He seems nice enough, courteous and generally good-humored when he's not unconvincingly painting Barack Obama as the man who wants to take away your freedom, your liberty and your right to choose your own doctor.
It's more that Mr. Romney doesn't seem to grasp that his money does make him different from the rest of us -- at least from those for whom lack of money makes life considerably more of a struggle than he has ever had to experience. This gap in comprehension and empathy has been apparent throughout his campaign this year, in his repeated tin-ear observations of his better-offness.
First, it was his proposal to make a $10,000 bet with an opponent rather than the sawbuck others might have offered to wager. Then there was his "Corporations are people" remark and his professed pleasure in firing people. And there was his casual observation that his wife has two Cadillacs.
All these seemingly unintentional reminders of Mr. Romney's fortune bring to mind an earlier Republican presidential candidate who could match him million for million but who countered the too-rich curse in a different way. The late governor of New York, Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, the grandson of John D. of dime-dispensing fame, made a weak and transparent effort to play down his wealth and to be seen as a regular guy. He nevertheless largely succeeded, winning the governorship four times, although he lost three bids for the GOP presidential nomination, spending huge amounts of moolah in the process.
"Rocky," as everyone called him, wore rumpled suits that seemed dated from the Roaring Twenties and waded into crowds of the hoi polloi greeting all comers with "Hiya, fella!" He modestly expressed his appreciation with "Thanks a thousand!" as if he could not let the word "million" cross his lips. He was loose as a goose on the stump, even to the point of giving one heckler the plebian middle-digit salute in what was probably his most widely circulated photo of him in campaign mode.
Rockefeller himself had a tin ear when it came to life among the 99 percent. Once, in a discussion of Social Security increases, when an aide raised a question about the impact on take-home pay, he asked, "What's take-home pay?" But it was always with a genuine innocence that somehow came off as endearing to the faithful.
Like Mr. Romney today, Rockefeller had trouble with the same conservative segment of his party, fighting the perception that he was a card-carrying liberal. But Mr. Romney's woes come from being seen merely as a moderate when there no longer is a liberal wing in the GOP.
In any case, Mitt Romney could use a bit more of the Nelson Rockefeller, regular-guy touch to counter the terrible political curse of never having been poor.
Jules Witcover, a syndicated columnist, is a former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.