Would Steven Mnuchin Receive This Kind of Press If He Were a Democrat?
What is it about that photograph of the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, and his wife, Louise Linton, holding a sheet of dollar bills that has so captivated America’s journalistic elites?
The chief fashion critic of the New York Times, Vanessa Friedman, fingered Ms. Linton’s black leather gloves. “Black leather, after all — unlike, say, brown leather — is one of the most emotive sartorial symbols in the wardrobe, imbued with a host of cultural and historical associations for almost everyone,” Ms. Friedman wrote. “It is the de facto outfit of villains everywhere, from generic Nazis with their black leather trench coats to Hermann Goering’s black leather boots, The Terminator (Version 1), Darth Vader and assorted Disney witches.”
Strangely enough, Barack Obama wore black leather gloves to his 2009 inauguration. Hillary and Bill Clinton both wore them to the 2014 inauguration of Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York. Jackie Kennedy worethem in 1988 to a tribute to William Paley. Somehow none of that reminded the New York Times of the Nazis.
The Saturday Times ran the Mnuchin-Linton photo at the top of its editorial column, above an editorial opposing tax cuts. “The administration’s cluelessness about how working people might see this cynical play for the rich was confirmed a day later when Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his wife, Louise Linton, were photographed with a sheet of freshly printed one-dollar bills with his signature, smirking like a couple of Disney villains,” the Times editorial said.
So the Times is complaining that the Trump administration chose not to bar news photographers from the event? Or it doesn’t like the facial expressions on Mr. Mnuchin or Ms. Linton? It’s a fine line between a smirk and a smile, between villains and superheroes.
A Times columnist and former Washington Bureau chief, David Leonhardt, retweeted Bill Kristol’s assessment: “Maybe not the best photo on the eve of vote on a tax bill that's being attacked for favoring the wealthy? If the Democrats were a competent political party, this photo would be in ads in every GOP swing district tomorrow.”
It’s terrific to see the Times finally discovering Mr. Kristol’s political astuteness. The tweet, though, sent me reaching to my bookshelf for acollection of essays by Mr. Kristol’s father Irving, who wrote in 1972, “Anyone who is familiar with the American working class knows…that they are far less consumed with egalitarian bitterness or envy than are college professors or affluent journalists.”
That is as true today as it was when it was written 45 years ago. Witness the election of President Trump, he of Mar-a-Lago at Palm Beach and the marble-clad apartment at Trump Tower and the private jet and the gold, or gold-colored fixtures. Many American voters don’t hate the rich; instead, they admire rich people and want to get rich themselves.
As for those who do hate the rich, or who hate Trump and the members of his administration, the Mnuchin-Linton photo kerfuffle gets to a key point. So much of the revulsion against Trump is not primarily substantive. It’s aesthetic.
The Democratic-leaning money class — Carlos Slim, who owns the largest economic share of the New York Times; George Soros; Ned Lamont; Tom Steyer; Penny Pritzker; Steven Rattner — is every bit as rich as Trump and Mnuchin and Linton. Do they have nicer smiles? Or wear gloves not of leather but of fleece made from recycled soda bottles?
Perhaps the photo isn’t precisely the political poison it’s made out to be. I thought it was kind of charming that Mnuchin’s wife participated in the dollar-bill event, rather than staying home or going to her own job. The photo was with one-dollar bills, not fifties or hundreds. There’s something reassuringly old-fashioned about the idea of having an individual human being’s signature printed on the currency, instead of having the dollar be issued by a nameless, faceless institution.
The gravest underlying accusation is that Mnuchin or Linton care too much about money, about enriching themselves and their economic peers through tax cuts. The Times editorial page photo cutline said the image depicted the couple, “and a few of their favorite things.” (That this charge is so casually made against a Jewish Treasury secretary by a press otherwise purporting to be hypervigilant against resurgent anti-Semitism and prejudiced stereotypes in the Trump era is a topic for some other column.)
The best response is probably what the Treasury secretary wrote in August to a group of Yale classmates. He serves, he said, “with a goal of taking actions to improve the economy for the benefit of all of our citizens. I believe that there is a great opportunity to simplify regulations, reform taxes, and generate millions of jobs through higher growth.”
He deserves to be judged not by his facial expression or by his wife’s fashion choices, but rather by that worthy standard.