Cashing in on presidential prestige
— 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
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 email@example.com.