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RNC Gustav Plans Reopen Issue of the McCains' Charitable Giving

August 31, 2008

On Sunday, Cindy McCain announced she was "offended" by Barack Obama's critique of her husband as an out-of-touch politician of privilege who "doesn't know" about the economic challenges Americans face. If so, Hurricane Gustav may provide her just the opportunity to refute the point. With the GOP hoping to capitalize on the potential tragedy by converting the Republican National Convention into a massive telethon, the McCains can give early, often and generously. And then, Cindy McCain can come clean about her top-secret charitable giving.
While there's no ambiguity about the McCains' fantastic wealth, the amount (if not some of the recipients) of their charitable giving remains shrouded in mystery. Just two weeks after claiming she would "never" release her tax returns, Cindy McCain in May released a two-page summary featuring $6 million in income earned in 2006. (Her disclosure did not include her 2007 IRS return, for which she had filed for an extension.) But her meager document dump shed little light on her charitable donations.
But while that summary did not add up Cindy McCain's contributions to charity, the McCain campaign web site did provide some information:

"In 2006, Senator and Mrs. McCain donated $129,390 from community assets to charity, of which Senator McCain's one-half allocation was $64,695. This is 19% of his adjusted gross income."

If that statement covers the totality of her giving, that would mean Cindy McCain gave only about 1% ($64,695 of $6,066,431 in adjusted gross income) to charity in 2006. That figure is less than half the 2.2% of their incomes Americans on average give to charity.
In her defense, it is important to note that Americans can't gauge the full scope of Mrs. McCain's charitable contributions based solely on the limited disclosure in May. Her itemized deductions totaled almost $570,000, of which her giving to charity would be part. But without access to her Schedule A form (which she did not release) detailing those contributions, it is not possible to know what she claimed. So, Cindy McCain may well have given more than 1% of her $6 million income to charity in 2006 from separate assets. But without either the release of her full return - or a statement from the McCain campaign - we'll never know.
Perhaps more damning, though, is where the money goes. As Harper's reported in February:

Between 2001 and 2006, McCain contributed roughly $950,000 to the [John and Cindy McCain Family] foundation. That accounted for all of its listed income other than for $100 that came from an anonymous donor. During that same period, the McCain foundation made contributions of roughly $1.6 million. More than $500,000 went to his kids' private schools, most of which was donated when his children were attending those institutions. So McCain apparently received major tax deductions for supporting elite schools attended by his children.

Documents released by the campaign show where the John and Cindy McCain Family Foundation distributed its money in 2006. Of the $187,639 in contributions made by the Foundation that year, $50,500 went to the Brophy College Preparatory School, previously attended by their sons Jim and Jack. Another $42,639 went to Christ Lutheran School, where Bridget and Jim once went. Interestingly, in 2007, distributions from the McCain Foundation dipped to $78,250, most of which went to Operation Smile and the HALO Trust for clearing land mines.
In contrast to the publicly disclosed 2% combined charitable giving of the McCains, Barack and Michelle Obama donated 5.7% of their 2007 income to charity. As the New York Times noted, the Hillary and Bill Clinton have not always met the 5% goal President Clinton set for himself. Nonetheless, the Clintons gave $3 million to their foundation last year.
Of course, book sales produced a windfall for the Obamas over the past two years, a windfall which has let them substantially ratchet up their support of charities. But the $100 million beer heiress Cindy McCain, too, is set to earn a staggering multi-million dollar pay-day from the acquisition of Anheuser-Busch by the Belgian beverage giant, In Bev. As the Wall Street Journal reported in July, Mrs. McCain runs the third largest Anheuser-Busch distributorship in the nation, and owns between $2.5 and $5 million in the company's stock. (Amazingly, while Missouri's politicians of both parties lined up to try to block the sale, John McCain held a fundraiser in the Show Me State even as the In Bev deal was being finalized.) Apparently, this Bud's for her.
Back in 2004, the Weekly Standard's Matthew Continetti branded Theresa Heinz Kerry a "sugar mommy." (Of course, he's remained quiet on the topic in 2008, even as the record shows Cindy McCain bankrolled her husband's political career). And to be sure, with the too-many-to-count homes, the $100 million plus fortune, the $2 million divestment in holdings linked to Sudan, the $520 shoes, her corporate jet ("in Arizona the only way to get around the state is by small private plane"), $130,000 budget for domestic help, the $225,000 monthly credit card debt and the potential $370,000 bonanza from the McCain tax plan, it's easy enough to paint the McCains with the same brush.
At the end of the day, it's not his eye-popping wealth but his jaw-dropping statements and gilded-age policies which lead Americans to conclude that John McCain "doesn't get it." The "$5 million" line between middle class and rich, the "great progress economically" during the Bush years, the "psychological" economic downturn, the nation of "whiners," the demand that Americans facing foreclosure should be "doing what is necessary -- working a second job, skipping a vacation, and managing their budgets -- to make their payments on time" and the suggestion that eBay is the solution to poverty all combine to show a blissfully unaware John McCain out-of-touch with the hardships American families face every day.
For her part, Cindy McCain apparently considers that spotlight an offensive. But with her husband John planning to appropriate a potential national disaster in Hurricane Gustav for partisan political purposes, the very least the McCains can do to give generously to Hurricane relief now and open the books on their charitable giving in the past.
UPDATE: In case there's any doubt how the Republicans plan to spin a looming natural disaster for hundreds of thousands of Americans, the Politico offers two news articles titled "GOP sees potential redemption in Gustav" and "McCain: Convention now a call to action."


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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