December 20 2013
The Unappealing Spectacle of Wretched Excess
Hand wringing about commercialism at Christmas is one of my pet peeves. Each year I, like many Americans, hear clergy abusing us from the pulpit for our supposed Yuletide materialism. I always chalk this up to the speaker’s not having enough to say about the babe in the manger. But I do expect more than a cliché about commercialism on Christmas Eve night.
I am for commercialism. The things we buy this time of year, after all, are mostly for other people. Love and appreciation, not envy and greed, are the motivations for most of our Christmas shopping.
The strong desire to give to others, whether just eggnog with an elderly neighbor, a new tie for a father, or a check for the Salvation Army, is what makes the United States the most charitable nation in the world.
Buying things for each other is not the same as wretched excess. But I am afraid that this year is our fifth year in a row of witnessing the unappealing spectacle of wretched excess from a family upon whom the fates have smiled, a family that should set an example. But they set the wrong example.
Keith Koffler, purveyor of the wickedly funny White House Dossier blog, sums up this American family's sense of entitlement this way:
“Michelle Obama recently revealed that she and President Obama don’t give Christmas gifts to each other. They merely say, “We’re in Hawaii,” and that’s Christmas gift enough.
“But actually the present is from taxpayers, and it’s an expensive one.”
If the Obamas couldn’t be persuaded to take more economical vacations when the economy was even worse off than it is now, I don’t see much hope of their going lighter on us taxpayers now that things are getting (marginally) better.
For those of us who are less la de da about financial matters, however, the outlay is staggering: Air Force One costs about $180,000 an hour of to fly, making the tab for the American taxpayer around $3.24 million just to get the first family to and from aloha land. I would urge Senator Tom Coburn to consider putting at least a portion of the first family’s holiday costs in next year’s Wastebook, his annual compendium of federal money spent on unnecessary and/or bizarre projects.
We do not begrudge our first family dignity in accordance with their stature, and we certainly want them to dwell in comfort and safety. But we don’t want them to take advantage of us either. Here I just might mention that Louisa Adams, who was married to John Quincy Adams, actually inaugurated White House tours—remember those?—to show the public that the first family wasn’t living luxuriously on the taxpayer’s nickel. How quaint!
Our presidents—and even lesser officials—now travel in the style of Medieval monarchs on a progress. I can’t help thinking that this not only reflects a distance between our leaders and the rest of the country but is a sign of decay. John Quincy and Louisa Adams also had an entertainment budget that was a fraction of what other diplomats had to spend and yet they became prominent in Europe.
Perhaps the worst aspect of the current First Family’s spending habits is they seem to take it all for granted. There is never a modest holiday, only the very best and most luxurious will do.
White House Christmases, in a way, reveal a great deal about the first family—and the nation that elected them. Thomas Jefferson played his violin for his grandchildren and their guests. Andrew Jackson took the children in the family to deliver gifts to Dolly Madison and an orphanage; along the way he told them about a boy who had never been given a toy or never told about Santa Claus as a child. The boy was Jackson. (Talk about a country with opportunity and upward mobility!) By contrast, our president will stay at an ocean-front house that reportedly rents for $24,000 a week. The president picks up the tab for his digs but we get such incidentals as the traveling entourage. Yes, this is the man who has recently unburdened himself on the subject of income inequality!
Instead of income inequality, the president ought to stay home, wear pajamas, drink hot chocolate, and talk about opportunity (and turn away from policies that kill opportunity)—and praise the American people for our generosity. Christmas might be a nice time of the year for him to tell us that he appreciates us.
As for the man in the pulpit, if you hear a sermon on consumerism this Christmas Eve, there’s only one response: Bah, humbug.