Holmes: Gramm, McCain and politics for the rich

Rick Holmes

I'm going to miss Phil Gramm. When times are tough and you're feeling down, there's nothing like having an old rich guy tell you it's all in your head.

It's also good to see one of our uglier political epithets backfire. When Gramm called us "a nation of whiners," it diminished the accuser, not the millions of people with serious problems he was trying to demean.

Gramm resigned as John McCain's campaign chairman this past weekend. He may be scouting real estate in Belarus, the former Soviet republic McCain lamely joked about sending him to after Gramm got caught whining about America's "mental recession."

Maybe Gramm can share a flat in Minsk with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who has so effectively been distanced from Barack Obama's campaign that no one has laid eyes on him for months. Wright was too colorful and unpredictable for the tightly-controlled Obama campaign.

McCain had his own preacher problems earlier in the campaign. But the evangelical leaders whose endorsements he sought, and later rejected, were political allies, not personal friends.

Obama's 20-year relationship with Wright, though, is far more personal, which raised legitimate questions about how much of Wright's attitudes and ideas Obama shares.

Phil Gramm is McCain's Jeremiah Wright.

He is among McCain's oldest and closest allies. McCain supported Gramm's presidential bid in 1996. Gramm took over management of McCain's campaign in 2007, when it looked like he might not make it to the first primary. He was McCain's chief economic adviser - and maybe still is, by phone from Belarus. Just a few weeks ago, Gramm was widely thought to be a likely pick for secretary of the treasury.

In Washington, Gramm was known as "the senator from Enron." Enron CEO Ken Lay chaired his campaign committee. As chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Gramm wrote laws deregulating the financial services industry. His wife, Wendy Gramm, did her part as chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, approving Enron's fancy bookkeeping.

Wendy Gramm went from that job to a seat on the Enron board of directors. She took her pay in cash, not Enron shares, so while thousands of Enron employees and shareholders were left high and dry, Wendy walked away with a reported $2 million.

Since leaving the Senate, Gramm has found another corporate patron. He is now a vice-president with the Swiss Banking giant UBS, representing its interests in Washington. UBS may be looking for a new vice-president: It has reportedly lost $45 billion in the subprime mortgage meltdown, and now Senate investigators are targeting 19,000 offshore accounts through which UBS have managed to evade $100 billion a year in taxes, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Karl Rove has tried to brand Obama as a country club wiseguy, a comment that, like Gramm's "whiners" remark, reflected more on the speaker than his target.

But it is McCain who reeks of the country club set. He's a product of America's military aristocracy. He married an heiress, gaining access not only to her father's fortune but to his sizeable clout in Arizona politics. The McCains own homes in Phoenix, Sedona, Virginia and California.

The values of the corporate rich have always been reflected in McCain's politics, and nobody expresses them better than Phil Gramm. He worships markets, preaches deregulation, downsizes government and shows no sympathy for those hurt by economic forces or government policies.

But McCain's new economic message is "I feel your pain," which is hard to maintain when your chief economic adviser talks like Old Man Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life."

Both Obama and McCain are self-made men, the authors of multiple autobiographies. They control their carefully cultivated images: McCain is portrayed as a POW and a senator, with the chapter about when he worked in public relations for his father-in-law's beer distributorship mostly left out. Obama dwells on his three years in Chicago working as a community organizer, not the year in New York spent writing research papers for multinational corporations.

Jeremiah Wright doesn't fit Obama's message of transcending racial anger, so he had to go. But at least Obama never considered putting Wright in his cabinet.

Phil Gramm may be off to Belarus, but the policies he helped write are still part of McCain's platform. If only he'd stick around - maybe he could testify on UBS's offshore tax havens - we might learn more about what McCain really has in store for the economy.

Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. ( He can be reached at