Cash­ing in on pres­i­den­tial pres­tige

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Ruth Mar­cus

— The pres­i­dent, as he pre­pared to leave of­fice, was dead broke. So broke, in fact, that he had to take out a loan to get him through the tran­si­tion. Bill Clin­ton in 2001? No, Harry Tru­man in 1953 — and the re­sem­blance ends there.

Back then, al­though Tru­man had only a monthly Army pen­sion of $112.56, he was adamant about not em­ploy­ing his pres­i­den­tial ser­vice to cash in. As bi­og­ra­pher David McCul­lough re­lates, Tru­man turned down a new Toy­ota; a Mi­ami real-es­tate de­vel­op­ment com­pany’s of­fer of “not less than $100,000” to come on board; an ar­ray of con­sult­ing gigs.

“I could never lend my­self

WASHINGTON

to any trans­ac­tion, how­ever re­spectable, that would com­mer­cial­ize on the pres­tige and dig­nity of the of­fice of the pres­i­dency,” Tru­man later wrote.

Those were the days — and even then they weren’t, en­tirely. Months af­ter leav­ing of­fice, Tru­man sold the rights to his me­moirs to Life mag­a­zine for $600,000 — the equiv­a­lent of more than $5 mil­lion to­day.

Still, the Tru­man ethos of not cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the of­fice has all but dis­si­pated. Ger­ald Ford avidly snapped up cor­po­rate board mem­ber­ships and con­sult­ing fees. Ron­ald Rea­gan shat­tered pres­i­den­tial speak­ing-fee records with $2 mil­lion from a Ja­panese com­pany, prompt­ing his suc­ces­sor, George H.W. Bush, to shrug, “Ev­ery­body’s got to make a liv­ing.”

In­deed, out of of­fice, both Bushes turned their at­ten­tion to the need to “re­plen­ish the ol’ cof­fers,” as George W. Bush put it.

But no one has filled the cof­fers so co­pi­ously, so quickly as Bill Clin­ton. “I was one poor ras­cal when I took of­fice,” Clin­ton told a stu­dent group in 2009. “But af­ter I got out, I made a lot of money.”

Ac­tu­ally, a mind-bog­gling amount. Be­tween the two of them, Bill and Hil­lary Clin­ton have re­ported earn­ing more than $235 mil­lion since leav­ing the White House. An un­set­tling re­minder of the gusher of cash that can flow a for­mer pres­i­dent’s way came with a re­cent re­port in The Washington Post on the $17.6 mil­lion that Bill Clin­ton earned as a con­sul­tant and “hon­orary chan­cel­lor” from Lau­re­ate In­ter­na­tional Uni­ver­si­ties, a for-profit col­lege com­pany.

Com­pared with other for­mer pres­i­dents, we know an enor­mous amount about the Clin­tons’ post-pres­i­den­tial ac­tiv­i­ties thanks to fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sure rules im­posed on Hil­lary Clin­ton while in the Se­nate and the State Depart­ment, and to her vol­un­tary de­ci­sion to re­lease tax re­turns, with their more de­tailed and pre­cise con­tents, in her cam­paigns.

The si­mul­tane­ity of Bill Clin­ton’s post-pres­i­dency with Hil­lary Clin­ton’s pub­lic ser­vice and, if she has her way, pre-pres­i­dency poses par­tic­u­lar prob­lems about the in­ter­sec­tion of his pay­checks with her gov­ern­ment work.

But the Clin­tons’ ra­pa­cious­ness raises broader ques­tions about what we should ex­pect from our for­mer pres­i­dents and about what has be­come for­mer pres­i­den­tial busi­ness-as-usual. That prof­it­ing to this ex­tent from pub­lic ser­vice has be­come rou­tine does not mean that we as a so­ci­ety should ac­cept it as a given — and the gross­ness of the Clin­tons’ ex­am­ple ought to give rise to a re­assess­ment. Lest this sound hope­lessly naive, this long af­ter the buck-rak­ing horse has left the barn, a few spe­cific sug­ges­tions:

Let’s pay our ex-pres­i­dents more from the pub­lic fisc (their an­nual pen­sion is now about $200,000) and ex­pect more from them. In ex­change for re­ceiv­ing the higher pen­sion money, they could be re­quired to file an­nual fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sure forms, just as they did while pres­i­dent. We can’t stop ex-pres­i­dents from vac­u­um­ing up huge speak­ing fees, in­clud­ing from ques­tion­able sources, but we can force them to do it in sun­light, whose glare could be chas­ten­ing.

Al­ter­na­tively, or in ad­di­tion, make the pen­sion de­pen­dent on for­go­ing out­side in­come above a cer­tain amount — as is al­ready done in some cases for fed­eral em­ploy­ees who go through the re­volv­ing door into lu­cra­tive jobs. Per­haps pres­i­dents could col­lect their pen­sion only if they es­chew in­come from any sources be­yond writ­ing books; well-paid pres­i­den­tial me­moirs have a long his­tory (see Ulysses Grant) and serve the pub­lic in­ter­est more than closed­door speeches.

Fi­nally, per­haps we could al­ter the ex­pec­ta­tions in ad­vance by rais­ing such ques­tions be­fore can­di­dates are elected. Trump has pro­posed ask­ing se­nior of­fi­cials to agree to re­frain for five years from tak­ing speak­ing fees from cor­po­ra­tions with a reg­is­tered lob­by­ist or from en­ti­ties tied to a for­eign gov­ern­ment.

Why not at least ask wouldbe pres­i­dents if they would abide by that re­stric­tion, per­haps ex­panded to in­clude con­sult­ing fees, and per­haps for life? If they’re not will­ing to give up the big bucks, do we re­ally want to give them the big job?

Ruth Mar­cus is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact her at ruth­mar­cus@wash­post.com.

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