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The Net Worth of the U.S. Presidents
May 24, 2010 3:54 AM   Subscribe

The Net Worth of the U.S. Presidents
posted by twoleftfeet (54 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Garfield died penniless? Garfield died in office.
posted by The White Hat at 4:28 AM on May 24, 2010


"Tricky Dick" made significant sums from series of interviews with David Frost and book advances.

After he left the White House in 1976, [Ford] made nearly $1 million a year from book advances and from serving on the boards of several prominent American companies.

Carter left office deeply in debt, but made substantial sums from writing 14 books.

Reagan was highly paid for his autobiography ....

Clinton received large advance from autobiography. His wife, the secretary of state, has also made money as author.

Book royalties constitute most of Obama's net worth.

Certainly some of these people had something worth reading, but my hunch is that book royalties are a primary avenue of corruption. A union, or business just buys a large number of books that are then dumped in a landfill. The fact that it costs 30 bucks to legally put 3 bucks in the pocket of an ex-president is probably a bargain.
posted by three blind mice at 4:44 AM on May 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


I wish it was more detailed than "< 1 million." There's a wide difference between being penniless and being worth $500K. (I wouldn't call the latter having "almost no net worth." But then, I'm not a subscriber to the Atlantic.) I was especially curious about Lincoln's exact net worth.
posted by bluefly at 4:58 AM on May 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


I agree bluefly, there are a lot of shades of grey underneath 'less than one million' I know from reading Team of Rivals that Mary Lincoln was in considerable debt during Lincoln's presidency, and padded White House expenses to pay it down.
posted by ukdanae at 5:07 AM on May 24, 2010


Step 1 - marry a rich woman
Step 2 - ??
Step 3 - President!
posted by backseatpilot at 5:07 AM on May 24, 2010 [5 favorites]


The fact that it costs 30 bucks to legally put 3 bucks in the pocket of an ex-president is probably a bargain.

Ask Sarah Palin and her political action committee. And she's coming out with another opus in the fall.

It's interesting that the earliest presidents were all very wealthy, and the more modern presidents were usually wealthy, but there was a stretch in the mid 19th century where none of them were.

I also found it interesting that Herbert Hoover, the man blamed for the Great Depression, was more wealthy than FDR, who I expected to top the list. Who would have guessed that Kennedy would?
posted by crunchland at 5:10 AM on May 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Interesting to know the net worth of the contenders in history who lost their respective election(s). I think John Glenn still owes me money.
posted by hal9k at 5:11 AM on May 24, 2010


I'd have liked to see a timeline in order to put the presidents' business dealing in perspective, in relation to when they served. For instance, this sentence in Zachary Taylor's bio...

"He made substantial money in land speculation, the leasing of warehouses, and investments in bank and utility stocks."

...doesn't say whether this successful speculation (and subsequent wealth) occurred before, during, or after his Presidency.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:16 AM on May 24, 2010


It's interesting that most of middle presidents had facial hair but none of the others didn't.

I don't know what this means.
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:30 AM on May 24, 2010 [6 favorites]


This amusing list of internet factoids culled from Wikipedia articles doesn't give enough information.
posted by goatdog at 5:30 AM on May 24, 2010


none of the others did.

Friggin double negatives
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:34 AM on May 24, 2010


Interesting that President Clinton, born with nothing, is now worth more than either of the Bushs, who were both born very wealthy.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:07 AM on May 24, 2010 [13 favorites]


A union, or business just buys a large number of books that are then dumped in a landfill.

That's how a lot of the conservative tomes get higher status than they normally would. Not businesses or unions, but "concerned organizations" buy them up and then distribute them as party favors, or then distribute them on the secondary market and you see them on the "3 for $8" tables.
posted by gjc at 6:14 AM on May 24, 2010


It's interesting that most of middle presidents had facial hair but none of the others didn't.

I don't know what this means.


I'm not sure about the meaning of the start of the trend (perhaps Lincoln's popularity made it "cool" to have facial hair in the White House for the first time?). But the end of the trend seems to coincide with the burgeoning popularity of the Gillette safety razor in the 1910s.

Step 1 - marry a rich woman
Step 2 - ??
Step 3 - President!


Alternative for Democrats:
Step 1 - marry an Ivy League lawyer from Chicagoland
Step 2 - ??
Step 3 - President!
posted by drlith at 6:21 AM on May 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


the end of the trend seems to coincide with the burgeoning popularity of the Gillette safety razor in the 1910s

That totally jibes with the history of facial hair among Canadian prime ministers.

But I don't want to derail my own thread.
posted by twoleftfeet at 6:30 AM on May 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


gjc: That's how a lot of the conservative tomes get higher status than they normally would.

Conservative tomes? Certainly. Someone mentioned Sarah Palin which is a great example. But the corruption seems bi-partisan: both Clintons and Al Gore have had best-sellers.

ThePinkSuperhero: Interesting that President Clinton, born with nothing, is now worth more than either of the Bushs, who were both born very wealthy.

Give it time. Bush's memiors aren't to be published until November. No doubt - in my skeptical mind - that the least popular and least literate president of my generation will also become a best-selling author.

Sweet corruption. Perfectly legal even. That's what makes it such a bargain.
posted by three blind mice at 6:37 AM on May 24, 2010


So Obama's the poorest president since Truman?

Kinda makes sense in a way.
posted by grubi at 6:42 AM on May 24, 2010


This is great and all, but am I the only one who also wants to know the favorite Spice Girl of each president? No? Just me? OK.

*Spice Girls estimated for pre-1995 presidents.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:46 AM on May 24, 2010 [21 favorites]


facial hair

But I think there was a populist movement that succeeded, to some degree.

The early presidents were rich enough to afford a barber; a clean shaven appearance meant wealth and success. Around the mid 1800's it became more popular to reject such finery, so you had a handful of presidents with facial hair and net worth less than $1 million. After the Gillette razor of 1910, everyman could be clean-shaven, so the populist message of beardedness became irrelevant. There hasn't been a president with facial hair since.
posted by twoleftfeet at 6:46 AM on May 24, 2010 [15 favorites]


Speaking fees are a big channel for putting cash in ex-presidents' pockets. At least as large as the book racket.
posted by warbaby at 6:52 AM on May 24, 2010


The fact that it costs 30 bucks to legally put 3 bucks in the pocket of an ex-president is probably a bargain.

I don't think there's anything preventing someone from just handing an ex-president an envelope full of cash. They're private citizens (with the rare exception, like Taft, that stay in public service). Now, buying large numbers of copies of a sitting president's book might be a way to skirt the law, but ex-presidents can just be paid directly by, for example, commanding $50,000 for a brief speaking appearance. Or having millions donated to a foundation they run and from which they are paid a salary (although, for example, Bill Clinton is not paid by the Clinton Foundation (see the bottom section of that page)).

I suspect the benefit of astroturfing the sales of ex-presidents' books has more to do with keeping them in the press than giving them money.
posted by jedicus at 6:53 AM on May 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


The fact that it costs 30 bucks to legally put 3 bucks in the pocket of an ex-president is probably a bargain.
Is it illegal to write an ex-president a big check?
posted by planet at 7:06 AM on May 24, 2010


grubi: So Obama's the poorest president since Truman?

No, you have to be careful with the data: "the number for each man is based on his net worth at its peak."

Which does not necessarily co-incide with the time in office. My guess is that Mr. Obama is no where near his peak.
posted by three blind mice at 7:17 AM on May 24, 2010


Another interesting thing is that of all the presidents, the first president - George Washington - was the richest. It's interesting because he was a Founding Father and also stinking rich. What an American icon!
posted by twoleftfeet at 7:21 AM on May 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Reagan had no inheritance, but his first wife, an actress, had her own money.

This is an odd sentence. Both of his wives were actresses. Both presumably had their "own money." What that had to do with his personal fortune is perhaps relevant in the case of Nancy Davis Reagan, but what does Jane Wyman's money have to do with anything?
posted by blucevalo at 7:33 AM on May 24, 2010


twoleftfeet: "Another interesting thing is that of all the presidents, the first president - George Washington - was the richest. It's interesting because he was a Founding Father and also stinking rich. What an American icon!"

Kennedy's family wealth was twice as large. Granted, that's not the same as personal wealth.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:34 AM on May 24, 2010


This is an odd sentence. Both of his wives were actresses. Both presumably had their "own money."

It means that his first wife inherited her money.
posted by atrazine at 7:49 AM on May 24, 2010


The fact that Washington was so rich just reinforces my respect for the two times he voluntarily relinquished power - as commander of the Colonial Army and again after declining to run for President a third time. That kind of money, combined with Washington's near universal public approval, would have made it very easy to establish himself as a new king.
posted by thewittyname at 7:57 AM on May 24, 2010 [5 favorites]


Washington kicked ass...
posted by Windopaene at 8:01 AM on May 24, 2010


Six foot eight. Weighed a fucking ton.
posted by crunchland at 8:09 AM on May 24, 2010 [13 favorites]


So Obama's the poorest president since Truman?

Well before he became president, Bill Clinton was making $35,000 a year as governor. Combined with Hillary though, they made $223,587 in 1991... which is in the top 1% and included perks like living in the governor's mansion.

So looking at before they were elected President, Clinton was doing well but far less than a bestselling author like Barack Obama. Book royalties for President's are significant enough that if a Presidential hopeful doesn't have a book out now or soon, they're probably not running in 2012.
posted by bobo123 at 8:34 AM on May 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


> I don't know what this means.

We're a nation with Roman faced sissy masters.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:36 AM on May 24, 2010 [5 favorites]


So Obama's the poorest president since Truman?

Truman was the last president without a postsecondary education, he became president with only a high school diploma. When he left the White House his only regular income was an army pension of $111.96 per month. While he faced, in his words, a "heavy burden of personal expense," he scrupulously avoided many lucrative offers he thought would commercialize, trivialize, or exploit the Presidency.

Concerning presidential book deals, from Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure, a wonderful book that I can't recommend enough:
In early February, just before leaving office, it was announced that Truman had agreed to sell his memoirs to Doubleday for an advance of six hundred thousand dollars. It was an astronomical sum, especially in 1953, when the average worker's annual salary was barely more than four thousand. It was assumed the former president's financial worries were over. Like Grant before him, he'd been saved from financial ruin by a book deal. But the truth was far different.

For one thing, the advance would be taxed income, at a rate of 67 percent. Four years earlier when Truman was in the White House, the IRS had allowed Dwight Eisenhower to claim his $635,000 advance on Crusade in Europe as a capital gain, rather than income, reasoning that the general was not a writer by profession. That reduced the tax on Ike's advance to 25 percent. When Truman asked the IRS for permission to claim his own advance as a capital gain, as Eisenhower did, his request was denied. This did little to improve the relations between the ex-president and the incumbent.
posted by peeedro at 9:27 AM on May 24, 2010 [6 favorites]


included perks like living in the governor's mansion.

This is true, but they were the first First Family in a long time (ever?) to move into the White House without owning a personal residence. This probably figured into political vulnerabilities they experienced including friends in the Lincoln Bedroom and gift vacations at places like Marthas Vineyard.

There hasn't been a president with facial hair since.

This is an interesting hypothesis, twoleftfeet. I don't know that the issue has been examined with such a conclusion, but we do know that generally there was a fad for facial hair in the 19th century that hasn't been equalled since. I'm uncertain that your class distinctions really hold; certainly plenty of aristocratic Southerners sported facial hair.

As to George Washington, there is much that is interesting about his case. Although he was comparatively wealthy from a young age (inheriting 10 slaves at age 11, for instance) most of his wealth came from Martha Washington -- and a good chunk of hers came from her first husband, Daniel Custis. As to the Presidency, Washington was the unanimous choice from the beginning due to his probity, and was almost a reluctant candidate. His retirement set an example, but was wholly in keeping with the character that led to his nomination in the first place. While there were a handful of monarchists amongst the patriots, it was not a popular position, and most seemed to take the Greek populist model of government as a desirable idea. Even if you assume a great swathe of personal loyalty among his soldiers, there was sufficient opposition to the very idea of a monarch or tyrant, as well as a political structure in many ways expressly designed to frustrate the possibility, that it wasn't even a temptation for a man who was more interested in gentlemanly pursuits than politics for its own sake. Finally, you need to recall the brilliance with which Washington finessed his -- and the country's -- way out of being invited to head up a coup d'état.
posted by dhartung at 9:30 AM on May 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


But the corruption seems bi-partisan

And it well might be, but other than Ms Palin are there other well documented cases of this happening?
posted by edgeways at 9:34 AM on May 24, 2010


It means that his first wife inherited her money.

Okay, that helps, thanks ..... but Wyman's obit says that her father died when she was 5 and that she was then adopted by neighbors, and her adopted father was a low-level county functionary. Doesn't sound like a recipe for inherited money to me.
posted by blucevalo at 9:52 AM on May 24, 2010


It's interesting that the earliest presidents were all very wealthy, and the more modern presidents were usually wealthy, but there was a stretch in the mid 19th century where none of them were.

Civil war.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:57 AM on May 24, 2010


Is it illegal to write an ex-president a big check?

Moreover, what could you possibly hope to gain by doing so?
posted by schmod at 10:11 AM on May 24, 2010


> Is it illegal to write an ex-president a big check?

Moreover, what could you possibly hope to gain by doing so?


A commencement address keynote speaker?
posted by Burhanistan at 10:13 AM on May 24, 2010


Moreover, what could you possibly hope to gain by doing so?

Introductions to countless appointees, civil servants, elected officials, and sundry other well-connected folks? A positive review of a book? A campaign endorsement?
posted by jedicus at 10:23 AM on May 24, 2010


It's surprising how many of them died penniless or with large debts. I blame it on not having internet-speak back then. "I waz pres. Can I haz monies plz?"
posted by rainy at 11:20 AM on May 24, 2010


Perhaps you hint to the president that if he swings some legislation your way, you'll return the favor in the form of a giant check when he's out of office and it's legal.
posted by breath at 12:46 PM on May 24, 2010


Step 1 - marry a rich woman
Step 2 - ??
Step 3 - President!
posted by backseatpilot at 5:07 A
M

Did not work well for John Kerry.
posted by Cranberry at 1:05 PM on May 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Or John McCain.
posted by breath at 1:26 PM on May 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Dolla dolla bill yo.
posted by SMITHMag at 1:42 PM on May 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd have liked to see a timeline in order to put the presidents' business dealing in perspective, in relation to when they served. For instance, this sentence in Zachary Taylor's bio...

"He made substantial money in land speculation, the leasing of warehouses, and investments in bank and utility stocks."

...doesn't say whether this successful speculation (and subsequent wealth) occurred before, during, or after his Presidency.


I know it's not really the gist of your point, but considering that Taylor died 16 months into his first and only term, I think it's safe to say that his wealth was accrued before he became President.
posted by Atom Eyes at 3:01 PM on May 24, 2010


Truman was the last president without a postsecondary education, he became president with only a high school diploma. When he left the White House his only regular income was an army pension of $111.96 per month. While he faced, in his words, a "heavy burden of personal expense," he scrupulously avoided many lucrative offers he thought would commercialize, trivialize, or exploit the Presidency.

What the Atlantic article doesn't mention is that it was Truman's financial difficulties after leaving the White House that essentially shamed Congress into passing the Former Presidents Act, which pays a pension to every living former president. According to Wikipedia, "the one other living former president at the time, Herbert Hoover, also took the pension, even though he did not need the money; reportedly, he did so to avoid embarrassing Truman."
posted by Rangeboy at 3:39 PM on May 24, 2010


Is it illegal to write an ex-president a big check?

Moreover, what could you possibly hope to gain by doing so?


payment for services rendered? it's a whole lot easier to sell deregulation with a business knows best philosophy if you know that your good deeds will bring their just rewards... (see Clinton)
posted by ennui.bz at 5:07 PM on May 24, 2010


>>It's interesting that the earliest presidents were all very wealthy, and the more modern presidents were usually wealthy, but there was a stretch in the mid 19th century where none of them were.

>Civil war.


I'm thinking maybe a combination of the first generation of career civil servants combined with the extreme financial turmoil (boom-bust to the EXTREME!) of the 19th century.
posted by epersonae at 5:30 PM on May 24, 2010


One of the most important conclusions of this analysis is that the presidency has little to do with wealth.

This seems like an awfully spurious statement for the authors to make. Maybe they meant "presidents come in all different shades of wealthy", but they're going to have to do more to convince me that someone is poor than tell me his net worth is less than a million dollars.
posted by threeants at 5:48 PM on May 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


But the corruption seems bi-partisan: both Clintons and Al Gore have had best-sellers.

I think you are underestimating the power of the Dad Book. Personally, my own father usually gets something about the Civil War for Christmas (lately I've gone a little wild and tried to branch out into the Old West; but he never mentioned that Kit Carson book again, so I guess it's back to Ol' Shenandoah next year) but I imagine if I had a slightly different flavor of father I could easily be buying him that year's political memoir of his favorite brand of partisanship every December.

And as for Clinton's book --- dude, don't you remember the nutsiness at the book stores when it came out? The mother was like 800 pages long, but there were lines out the door at a ton of places --- I specifically remember and Irish friend of mine telling me an anecdote that revolved around the trouble caused by the huge crowd of people on Dawson Street in Dublin when he did a signing over there. Sarah Palin's book, ditto.

I mean, it's definitely true that there are book clubs and suchlike that buy these books at huge discounts and help drive up their sales. But I'm afraid the regrettable truth is that lots of people like this dreck.

(Except Grant's. Grant's is legit awesome. Actually, now I think about it, Sarah Palin's book is probably Grant's fault.)
posted by Diablevert at 6:12 PM on May 24, 2010


I haven't read it, but my friend says Obama's first book is brilliant. It was published about the time he got into politics, but (unlike his later book) doesn't seem at all like the typical "here is my story, vote for me" type book.
posted by jb at 8:18 PM on May 24, 2010


What's with the weird lack of copy-editing? Has the Atlantic gotten rid of all of their editors?

Born into great wealth, Kennedy's wife was oil heiress. His Father was one of the wealthiest men in America, and was the first chairman of the SEC. Almost all of JFK's income and property came from trust shared with other family members.
posted by gingerbeer at 9:03 PM on May 24, 2010


Am I the only one who was expecting this to be

Washington + Jefferson + Lincoln + Hamilton + Jackson + Grant + Franklin + McKinley + Cleveland + Madison = $6,668?
posted by chavenet at 10:55 PM on May 24, 2010


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