President Clinton and his wife shopped for houses again yesterday in pricey Westchester County, N.Y., where they had the luxury of largely ignoring a liability that would sink many families: $5 million in legal debts.
The Clintons can realistically consider homes costing $2 million or more in Westchester--from which the first lady hopes to launch a U.S. Senate bid--because thousands of supporters are helping eliminate their debt and because the president will have dramatically increased earning power after he leaves office, financial advisers say. Their income potential will be even more eye-popping if Hillary Rodham Clinton avoids the Senate, whose ethics rules would bar her from the millions she probably could earn in her own right by making speeches, practicing law or serving on corporate boards.
Few couples would bother house-hunting in Westchester County if they, like the Clintons, didn't own a home but owed their lawyers more than $5 million. The Clintons, however, aren't like most families. As Ronald Reagan demonstrated when he collected $2 million for a handful of speeches in Japan soon after leaving the White House in 1989, ex-presidents can command staggering fees for personal appearances, books and endorsements.
Clinton, who will be 54 when he leaves office in January 2001, presumably would have years to write books, address conventions and perhaps serve as a law firm's "rainmaker." With supporters chipping in a few million dollars a year to retire his legal bills, the president should have little trouble financing a handsome home now and emerging debt-free in short order, according to agents and publishers for high-profile people.
Clinton should be able to charge "at least $100,000 an appearance" for lectures in the United States, and possibly more in Japan, said Norman Brokaw, who handled international deals for former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and heads the William Morris Agency. Meanwhile, a prominent New York publisher said Clinton would receive "a minimum of $1 million" for writing his memoirs. If he follows Carter's and Richard Nixon's examples, he could receive sizable advances for book after book.
Because of this projected earning power, mortgage specialists say, bankers will be happy to lend the couple enough money now to buy a $2 million house, probably by keeping monthly payments low until the Clintons leave the White House.
"These guys are going to have zero trouble getting a loan," said Kenneth Harney, a nationally syndicated columnist on real estate matters. "My guess is they're probably going to be fending off offers."
Technically speaking, the Clintons may be the poorest couple to leave the White House in modern times, thanks to the thousands of hours that high-priced lawyers have spent defending them in the Whitewater real estate investigation, and the president in the Monica S. Lewinsky sexual scandal and his subsequent impeachment and trial. Their legal debts, once exceeding $10 million, stand at about $5.2 million, according to trustees of their legal defense fund, created 18 months ago.
About 65,000 supporters have contributed $6.3 million thus far. Donations have slowed somewhat since the Senate voted in February not to expel the president, but the fund still collected $2.4 million in the first half of this year.
Throughout their marriage, Hillary Clinton has been the family's main breadwinner, primarily as a lawyer at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock. Her husband spent years as Arkansas governor, generally earning $35,000 annually. He now makes $200,000 a year as president.
The Clintons don't own a home, and they borrow friends' houses in Florida, Colorado, Massachusetts and elsewhere when they vacation.
Most of the family's assets are in a blind trust they created soon after Clinton became president. The trust, managed by Boston-based Pell Rudman Trust Co., generated $200,318 in capital gains for the family last year, and is valued at more than $1 million, according to the Clintons' most recent tax returns and financial disclosures. The couple paid $89,951 in federal income taxes on an adjusted gross income of $504,109 in 1998.
The trust's activities are known only to its managers, but the assets are thought to be invested largely in stocks and bonds. The Clintons reported a net worth of nearly $700,000 when they created the blind trust in July 1993. Their contributions at the time included more than $50,000 in Wal-Mart stock, more than $100,000 from Hillary Clinton's profit-sharing account at the Rose firm, and more than $50,000 in cash.
Several mortgage lenders said the Clintons will have many financing options available when buying a house in New York.
"There are probably going to be some extreme concessions made, given the position he's in," said Jim Hensley, managing director for First Savings Mortgage Corp. in Tysons Corner, Va., referring to the president's future earning powers. Options could include a very small down payment or initial monthly mortgage payments that might not cover interest costs for a while, let alone reduce the loan's principal.
Michael Covino, a mortgage lender for wealthy buyers in Westchester County, said the Clintons should have little trouble buying a house such as the $1.7 million, seven-bedroom home they viewed in Edgemont on Aug. 15 or the similarly priced four-story, five-bedroom Georgian colonial on 1.1 acres complete with swimming pool they looked at in Chappaqua yesterday.
Covino, president of Resource Mortgage Banking, said the Clintons could make a 25 percent cash down payment of $425,000 and borrow the remaining $1,275,000 at 8.5 percent interest, over 30 years. They would make "interest-only" payments of less than $10,000 a month for the first 10 years, he said, and then make larger monthly payments to begin eliminating the principal.
Such a plan would involve fairly small closing costs, he said, because the lender would not charge "points," or loan origination fees. The Clintons' current income and debts to lawyers would be of little importance, he said.
"They have a tremendous ability to raise money, so we wouldn't be real concerned with his legal obligations," Covino said.
For all of Clinton's earning potential, several literary agents say his wife could write the bigger blockbuster if she agreed to share her views on sensitive topics such as her husband's affair with Lewinsky, the former White House intern. White House insiders say publishers already have offered her advances of about $5 million for a single book.
Brokaw, the Beverly Hills-based talent agent, said if Hillary Clinton does not become a senator, she "could earn in excess of $20 million for writing a book and for other activities including lectures."
The president has told friends that his wife could make $20 million in the private sector, although it's unclear the time frame he envisioned. Associates say Clinton has told them he has urged his wife to decide on the Senate race without regard to money because he can "take care of" the family's financial needs upon leaving office.
Senate rules limit a senator's ability to receive income beyond the official salary of $136,700 a year. Profits from writing a book, however, are allowed. Hillary Clinton reported $74,289 in 1998 royalties from her book about child-rearing, "It Takes a Village," all of which she contributed to charity.
Should she be elected to the Senate and also write a White House memoir, nothing would legally restrain her from accepting the potentially huge profits. Marsha Berry, the first lady's press secretary, said Hillary Clinton has not specified how she would handle profits from future books.
"She says she would like to write another book," Berry said, "but has not indicated when, or what the topic would be."
Staff writer Lynne Duke in New York contributed to this report.