“Eight millionaires and a plumber” is a dismissive reference to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first cabinet.
Eisenhower’s critics complained that the president’s top advisers were all wealthy and therefore, by implication, out of touch with ordinary people. The only exception – the “plumber” in the phrase – was Marty Durkin, the new labor secretary. Durkin had previously headed up the Plumbers’ Union.
Many of Eisenhower’s cabinet members came from the private sector and lacked experience in government. The secretary of the treasury, George Humphrey, had a background in law and eventually became the president and chairman of the board of the steelworks M. A. Hanna and Company.
Eisenhower’s pick for Secretary of Defense, Charles Wilson, was an engineer who had risen to become the vice president of General Motors. Wilson was very open about his strong ties to the private sector; he considered them an asset, not a problem. He once famously told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.”
Martin Durkin, the “plumber” in the cabinet, came from a much humbler background than his colleagues. Durkin grew up in Illinois and attended evening school, leaving at the age of 17 to become a steamfitter’s apprentice. From there, he joined the plumbers’ and pipe fitters’ union, eventually rising through the ranks to become president of the union. In 1933, he became the Director of Labor for the State of Illinois. Durkin was also the only Democrat in the cabinet. A former Union man, Durkin pushed hard to revise the Taft-Hartley Act. He was unable to get the changes he wanted, and stepped down from his cabinet post after just eight months in office.
Decades later, pundits compared President Donald Trump’s cabinet to President Eisenhower’s. Screaming headlines criticized the president for appointing a team of wealthy individuals with little government experience. A piece in Politico was titled “Trump’s Team of Gazillionaires;” the article pointed out that the president’s cabinet picks seemed out of step with his campaign message, which had promised to fight for the forgotten working class. The Washington Post claimed that Trump had assembled “the richest administration in modern American history.”
However, an op-ed in the Washington Post also pointed out that most of America’s presidents and cabinet members have been wealthy. JFK, FDR, and the trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt all had personal fortunes which allowed them to pursue independent policies. (In his own time, FDR was labeled a “traitor to his own class” for his tax policies, among other things.) The Post op-ed closed by defending Eisenhower’s “eight millionaires and a plumber” cabinet:
Although Republican President Dwight Eisenhower was from a more modest background, his Cabinet picks were roundly mocked as “eight millionaires and a plumber.” Yet they managed to serve their country well and selflessly, acting against their own economic interests by maintaining a top marginal income tax rate of 91 percent throughout Eisenhower’s eight years in office. The revenue helped build our interstate highways and create NASA, among other achievements.