Conservative columnist Matt Lewis discusses his new book 'Filthy Rich Politicians'
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The writer Matt Lewis grew up in a rural area in a modest home.
MATT LEWIS: My dad was actually a prison guard for about 30 years in Hagerstown, Md. I like to joke that he voluntarily went to jail for three decades so that I could get paid to write about politics.
INSKEEP: Which Lewis has done for many years now. He once worked for The Daily Caller, a website run by the right-wing media figure Tucker Carlson. And he realized that at this populist website, many employees came from elite, privileged backgrounds. This became obvious when Lewis worked on a story that turned on the details of yachting.
LEWIS: And I just said, hey, does anybody here know anything about yachting or sail boating? Ten hands go up (laughter). And that's when I knew that I was not in Kansas or West Virginia anymore.
INSKEEP: Lewis has now written a book on the gap between Washington elites and the people they serve. It's called "Filthy Rich Politicians."
LEWIS: Everyone has kind of known that politicians tend to be richer than the rest of us. And it's certainly true when you talk about, like, presidents. But right now, we're at a point where more than 50% of the members of Congress are millionaires. And so it's a similar situation as with the media. It's hard not to be out of touch with normal, average Americans and our concerns when you are way, way wealthier than normal Americans.
INSKEEP: You have a list of the richest members of Congress. No. 1 is Senator Rick Scott from Florida - $200 million. Michael McCaul - $125 million. Flip through here. You give Nancy Pelosi as being worth $46 million. Ralph Norman - $20 million - is only at No. 25. What do you draw from that?
LEWIS: Well, first, let me say it's almost impossible to know exactly what their net wealth is because politicians have written the rules regarding their disclosure - how they disclose their wealth. But I think, you know, the really more disturbing part is once politicians get elected, they almost always get richer.
INSKEEP: Help me understand how political figures would get richer. And I want to underline a couple of things here. Members of Congress make six-figure salaries, but they don't actually seem like that much when you consider they need to own two homes and fly back and forth and travel around all the time and do different things. And yet, you're saying that people get richer after they come to Washington. What are some ways that that happens?
LEWIS: Right. So as you noted, the average member of Congress makes about $174,000 a year. But that's not - that doesn't account for most of the money they have. But the much more concerning things have to do with, for example, stock trading, specifically instances that look like insider trading. But there's a lot of things, including book deals, believe it or not. Ron DeSantis, a month ago, was worth about $300,000, at least according to his disclosure. He just became a millionaire because of a book deal. And, of course, he was able to sell books because he's a notable political figure.
I would say even more concerning when it comes to these book deals, though, are the bulk sales that they're often able to get. This would be where, like, the National Republican Congressional Committee, for example, might buy tens of thousands of copies of a politician's book. Potentially, some of that money would go into the pocket of the politician via royalties and maybe even advances.
INSKEEP: Are there a lot of ways that money that goes to the parties, as you describe there, or that goes to campaigns - the millions and millions and millions of dollars - end up enriching the candidates themselves?
LEWIS: Yes, I think that is one of the real problems is that it's other people's money. They're enriching their friends and family along the way. Maxine Waters paid her daughter more than $80,000 out of campaign coffers. That's just one year. Ilhan Omar has directed millions of dollars to her husband's consulting firm. And in 2012, Ron Paul - Republican Congressman Ron Paul - paid at least six different members of his family a total of more than $300,000. And so in this case, the money is being paid to family members, and I think it's really eroding trust in our elected officials.
INSKEEP: Can the officials in every one of those cases essentially say, well, they were doing work? People should be paid for work. And, yeah, they're a family member, but that's the person I trust. John F. Kennedy named his brother attorney general.
LEWIS: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, Ulysses S. Grant had, like, 40 or 50 members of his family, I think, on the payroll in one capacity or another. And, look, I'm willing to believe that Robert F. Kennedy was a great campaign manager for his brother. I don't think he should have been the attorney general, but he was certainly a qualified and competent person. I just think we need to hold our elected officials to a higher standard.
INSKEEP: I want to talk about the political significance of this. The party with which you've been most associated has a lot of people in it who think of themselves as ordinary Americans, not the elites. The party has a kind of platform of campaigning against the elites. How did its standard bearer turn out to be a millionaire from New York who's been involved in all the things that Donald Trump has been involved in?
LEWIS: It's stunning, to be honest. Trump is interesting. You know, on one hand, he actually lost wealth during his presidency, and that's mainly due to the fact that COVID-19 did damage to industries that he has invested in, including the hotel industry. But...
INSKEEP: Although the hotel that he had in Washington seems to have charged very high prices for lots and lots of rooms from Republicans during his presidency. But go on, go on.
LEWIS: Well, Republicans and also foreign visitors and dignitaries who probably stayed there and paid, you know, good money. The fact that Trump actually hired Ivanka, his daughter, and Jared, his son-in-law, to work in his administration, and then Jared ends up getting a $2 billion investment from a Saudi fund into his private equity firm. Two billion dollars is really unbelievable. You know, the Bidens, of course, are currently also facing some potential scandals and questions, like, having to do with Hunter Biden. And I don't know how that will shake out, but it won't be $2 billion. I can tell you that.
INSKEEP: Matt K. Lewis is the author of "Filthy Rich Politicians." Thanks so much.
LEWIS: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF POST MALONE SONG, "GO FLEX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.