“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.”
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.
While the term “eight millionaires and a plumber” was used disparagingly by some, others saw the composition of Eisenhower’s cabinet as a pragmatic approach that combined business acumen with a nod to labor interests.
Taegan Goddard is the creator of the Political Dictionary.
Goddard spent more than a decade on Wall Street as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he also served as a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You Won – Now What?: How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House, a political management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from both parties.
His essays on politics and public policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University.
He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.