We elected a rich man as our President. Or did we?
Several years ago when I was a prosecutor in the Westchester DA’s office I had a friend named Bill Fleming. Bill was a smart and principled Irishman in the old mold. He liked to read and was thoughtful and poetic. We were both assigned to fight crime in Mount Vernon and he was my branch chief. Mount Vernon in the 90s, a city on the border of the Bronx, could be a tough and depressing place – drugs, violence, and domestic violence were a daily part of life.
Bill used to tell me about his father. With a twinkle in his eye and a touch of the Irish poet, Bill would say, “My father was a civil servant. He never had a lot of money and we lived in a cramped apartment in the Bronx with 5 kids. He was the richest man I ever knew”. I did not know his dad, but I knew Bill, so I knew his father’s legacy. Despite his economic condition, Bill’s father was a rich man.
It reminded me of the holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life”. After a life of everyday struggle in a small town running his family’s “broken down savings and loan” George Bailey is pushed to the brink. In the end, he realizes how good he has it and is toasted by family and friends “To George Bailey, the richest man in town”.
Trump is a billionaire – on paper, a rich man. He has built buildings covered with marble and gold leaf. He has acquired golf courses and resort properties of great beauty around the world. Yet at times during the campaign Trump spoke with an egocentric arrogance and in derogatory ways about women and minorities that betrayed a poverty of character. You can be poor despite your material wealth.
Yet, we have also met Trump’s children during the campaign. They seem bright, articulate and accomplished. That had to come from somewhere. Trump gets at least partial credit with his wives for his kids. In this way Trump has riches.
My family happens to be in the same business as the Trump family – sort of. Trump builds luxury apartments for the wealthy and foreign investors, we renovate old buildings for middle class New Yorkers and those just starting out. Both families own real estate in New York, which is where the similarities end. A few weeks before the election, I was with one of our employees – a building superintendent in a building in Chelsea. His name is Vassilli, an immigrant from the Ukraine who came to this country 25 years ago. My father hired him to run that building and he and his wife Natalia have a small apartment on the first floor. They have raised three children in that apartment. The oldest, Christopher, is pursuing a graduate degree in International Relations at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
When we spoke that day Vassilli said, “I have three children, I do not make a lot of money, and I am a rich man”. Vassilli said he felt blessed to be in this country and is thankful my father gave him an opportunity. He feels fortunate to be an American. Then Vassilli surprised me and said he was voting for Donald Trump. He said he admires what Donald Trump has built in this country and admires his success. But most importantly he said “Trump has a great family, and you can tell a lot about a man by his family”.
Vassilli is right. Like Vassilli I feel I am a rich man, and it has nothing to do with money. I have a great family. I had the example of parents who have worked hard and treated people fairly. Whatever their material success, they have always been humble and charitable. My wife and I try to pass those same lessons on to our four children. We are involved in our community. We count our blessings everyday. We live a rich life.
Let us hope our new President shares the right riches with his country. We would hope that Mr. Trump realizes how good this country has been to him and wants to share that richness of opportunity with all Americans. We are all made richer when we have an economy where everyone has a chance at success, a society where people are respected regardless of their differences, and a country where the bonds of family and community come first. Let’s hope he understands with some humility the awesome responsibilities he now has as our President. Then he can truly be a rich man.