We laughed at Jimmy Carter for carrying his suitcase into the White House. The government supplies aides to do that for presidents. Such humility is pretentious.
Other presidents have shown pretense in other ways. Ronald Reagan flew to Japan shortly after he retired and gave two speeches for a million dollars each. The Reagans said they needed it for their retirement, though modern presidents get a generous pension, lavish health care and a lot of other perks. It wasn't the Gipper's finest hour, but he had a lot of finer hours, and his friends gave him a pass.
George Washington was wealthy through his wife's estate, and he was appreciated for the strength and dignity of leadership. His wife, Martha, one of the richest women in the country, wore gowns of homegrown cotton, not imported silk, to promote fashion through support of American farmers.
Mitt Romney and his family wore their wealth more or less modestly, but they were part of the "1 percent," and that didn't sit well with the voters. Nobody knew much about Barack Obama, a senator serving his first term, but he appeared to live modestly, and the voters liked that. That was then, of course, and the "now" may be different.
The image of the presidents is colored by how they're perceived in relation to money, which is colored by background and the context of their moment in history. Ronald Reagan humbled "the evil empire," which trumped that trip to Japan. Jimmy Carter, modest and meek or not, had image problems with or without the suitcase. The two Bush presidents were born to wealth but never flaunted it.
The Clintons are something different. Hillary was born into the Midwest middle class, but Bubba sprang from a redneck culture in Arkansas, and together they pulled in different directions. She was first perceived in Little Rock as the thrifty Yankee wife, uncomfortable on the governor's small salary, who took tax deductions for his used underwear donated to the Salvation Army thrift store. His excesses were about sex.
Now the Clintons, flush with millions collected for their "charitable foundation," are playing in a higher league. They want everyone to believe they spend the money only on good deeds financed by foreign governments and the super rich who donate millions with no strings attached. Their life of luxury is eye-popping. The most recent perk is a full-size jetliner, provided by Canadian philanthropist Frank Giustra, for Bill's forays to foreign destinations in search of opportunities to do good. The plane, as described in The Washington Post, has a bedroom and is decorated with an art collection and a bath with gold-colored fixtures (but no swimming pool), and is "the core element of the new friendship between business mogul and political icon."
The good ol' boy from Arkansas and The Greater Gatsby bonded when Bill needed a ride to Latin America and the Gatsby offered to lend him his plane if he could go along to do a little business on the side. Bill has used the plane 26 times since their "bonding" in 2005, and Mr. Giustra has joined him for 13 of those trips.
Only last week, the Clinton Foundation acknowledged that an affiliated Canadian charity, founded in 2007 by Mr. Giustra, kept its donors secret despite Hillary's ethics agreement with the Obama administration that the foundation would reveal the names of foreign donors. The affiliation enabled the Clinton Foundation to have anonymous donors, including foreign executives with business before the government while Hillary was the secretary of state.
Bill has always been a problem for Hillary, but now it's his philanthropy, not his philandering, giving her campaign headaches. The former president tells NBC that he has no regrets for depending on the kindness of foreign strangers who give money to the foundation -- or pay enormous fees to listen to him speak. Defending a $500,000 fee for a speech, Bubba seems to have lost his skill for deflecting political excess with rhetorical finesse. His excuse, that "I gotta pay our bills," echoes Hillary's tall tale that the family was "dead broke" when they left the White House 14 years ago. They're the Snopes family in a Faulkner novel, boorish without insight into their identity with new money.
When Bubba says the family charity has never done anything "knowingly inappropriate," like taking money to influence American foreign policy while Hillary was secretary of state, he's the familiar Bill Clinton parsing the meaning of what "is" is. This time there's no "is," because she destroyed her emails.
"I'm not in politics," he says, making a defense that defies satire. Harry Truman kept a carved motto on his White House desk to remind him that "the buck stops here." Bubba has rewritten the maxim: "The bunk starts here."