Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like it. It is where the heart is.
It is home. Today, homes — our homes and those of our presidential candidates — are all over the news. The stories range from heart-wrenching crisis to comic ridicule. The coverage about our homes and theirs reveals much about the concerns of our government, our news media and us.
But we can learn a bit more by recalling another true but little-known story about how a previous sitting president used a mind-boggling yet legal ruse about his home to avoid paying some taxes.
We’ll get to that. But first, today’s crisis that erupted when the home mortgage behemoths Fannie May and Freddie Mac collapsed. These quasi-governmental giants did not crumple without warning. Red flags and alarms went unseen, unheard and unheeded by Official Washington. Republicans and Democrats who should have blown their whistles swallowed them instead.
Now threats of foreclosure have descended upon millions of homeowners who once believed they were safely living life’s dream. Among those Americans who have no such fears are Barack Obama and John McCain. Yet, much to their consternation, their homes have also been very much in the news.
Obama’s home became a controversy when it was reported that he bought his $1.65 million Chicago house with help from a friend, Tony Rezko. A Democratic contributor who later became a convicted felon, Rezko bought the seller’s empty lot next-door. Obama smartly took his problem out of the news by admitting that accepting Rezko’s help was "boneheaded."
McCain’s home controversy was far more trivial. It began with a reporter’s seemingly silly question: How many houses do you and your wife own? McCain looked like he’d been asked about quantum mechanics and sheepishly admitted he didn’t know. Seven was the correct answer. Finally, America had a scandal that didn’t require a Woodward and Bernstein to break the news — Leno, Letterman, the Daily Show and Doonesbury spread the word freely, faster and farther than even Obama’s gleeful ad-makers could pump their costly commercial ridicule.
Americans who can’t fathom the intricacies of Fannie and Freddie — and who have never heard of the Obama/Rezko controversy — have heard all the howlers about McCain being a guy who owns seven houses yet claims he feels the pains of middle class homeowners.
But there is one story about a president and his home — a tale of tax avoidance that seems borderline preposterous but was legal. Indeed, the most preposterous thing may well be that most Americans never even knew about it.
As America’s 41st president, George Herbert Walker Bush owned a 26-room mansion in Kennebunkport, Maine while he lived in that gleaming white Washington, D.C. public housing mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He spent lots of time in each place.
If the Bushes had called the White House their official residence, they would have had to pay $30,000 a year in District of Columbia income taxes. If the Bushes had declared their legal residence was their mansion in Kennebunkport, they’d have paid $29,000 a year in Maine’s income taxes. Yet they paid zero in state income tax.
That was because the Bushes listed as their permanent residence Houston, Texas, where there is no state income tax. You might think it was a problem that the Bushes had no permanent domicile in Houston — nothing owned or continuously rented; just a tiny vacant lot. No problem. President G. H. W. Bush listed as his official residence a suite in the Houstonian Hotel. Never mind that he paid for the suite only on the days he slept there. Texas law permitted Bush to call Houston home as long as he filed an affidavit saying he intended to make Houston his home upon retirement, which indeed he did.
Money Magazine broke the story of this tax dodge during the elder Bush’s presidency. Then I wrote about it, praising Money’s reporting. But frankly, my media colleagues paid it scant attention. In that era, the news media’s big unblinking eye focused mainly on the extracurricular sex scandals of Bush’s opponent, Bill Clinton.
At the time the elder Bush ran for reelection in 1992, he had spent just 14 days of his presidency in this hotel suite that was called his legal residence. Fourteen days in four years. All the other days when the Bushes weren’t in town, Houstonian officials told me back then, anyone from the public could pay and stay in the legal residence of our 41st president.
So put away your books of quotations. Now we know: Be it ever so humble, home is where the taxes aren’t.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)