John McCain, Candidate of Privilege?

Washington reporter Elisabeth Bumiller's lead story for Sunday's Week in Review, "The Snare of Privilege," questioned why "elitism" is a dirty word in American politics - and made a decent case as to why "The New York Times" remains one in Republican circles.

Even when she's attempting balance, Bumiller can't help tilting against the GOP. From her opening, one gets the idea that John McCain is the onlyrich person inthe race, as if Hillary and Bill Clinton are not multimillionaires and that Obama hasn't made plenty of money from his two autobiographies. (It's not the first time Bumiller haspointed outMcCain's "privileged" past.)

Hillary Rodham Clinton, Wellesley '69, Yale Law '73 and the first lady of the land for eight years, is suddenly a working-class heroine of guns and whiskey shots. Barack Obama, Columbia '83 and Harvard Law '91, visits bowling alleys and beer halls and talks about his single mother who lived on food stamps.

John S. McCain III, United States Naval Academy '58, the son and grandson of admirals and the husband of one of the richer women in Arizona, chases after the conservative, anti-elite religious base of the Republican Party, and prefers to talk about the "cabin" at his Sedona weekend retreat rather than the Phoenix home lushly featured in the pages of Architectural Digest in 2005.

In an increasingly populist country, it's not surprising that all three presidential contenders have been sprinting away from the elitist label for much of this primary season. But do they really expect to get away with it?

Bumiller concluded by calling McCain the "most elite" of all the candidates, while bringing up his wife's wealth for the second time (and avoiding the five non-elite years he spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam).

The lesson has not been lost on Mr. McCain, whose third-generation Annapolis lineage makes him perhaps the most elite of the three candidates and is married to a woman whose money financed his political career. In a speech last month in Inez, Ky., the Appalachian coal-mining hollow where in 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson declared his war on poverty, Mr. McCain tried to bridge the difference.

As if Hillary Clinton got where she was strictly on her own merits and not with any help from her husband.

"I cannot claim that the circumstances of our lives are similar in every respect," Mr. McCain told a friendly crowd at the Martin County Courthouse. "I'm not the son of a coal miner. I wasn't raised by a family that made its living from the land or toiled in a mill or worked in the local schools or health clinic. I was raised in the United States Navy, and after my own naval career, I became a politician. My work isn't as hard as yours."

Nonetheless, Mr. McCain assured the crowd that "you are my compatriots," and "that means more to me than almost any other association."

It was a peculiarly American sentiment - hopeful, political, perhaps naïve. But it was as old as the nation itself.

"I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father's child has," Lincoln told Union troops assembled at the White House in August 1864, as recounted in Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, "Team of Rivals." He promised them all "equal privileges in the race of life."