Today the Post published a fascinating analysis, complete with a cool interactive graphic, of how Bill and Hillary Clinton managed to make over $100 million since leaving the White House in 2001, in particular Bill Clinton’s speaking fees. It’s a window into a rarefied world where former high-ranking officials can get paid ungodly amounts of money for doing the same thing they used to do for free, delivered to them by corporations and organizations that may have a keen financial interest in what the government does.
People will look at all these huge speaking fees and say they “raise questions” about Hillary Clinton. But what questions, exactly, do they raise? It’s perfectly legitimate to ask whether as president Hillary Clinton might do favors for a company that paid her or her husband a large sum of money some time in the past. But even if the sums involved are staggering, the case that she’ll have a genuine conflict of interest is thin at best.
The information is available because Hillary Clinton had to file disclosure reports as a senator from 2001 to 2008, and then as secretary of state the following four years. We don’t have comparable data for the speaking fees she or Bill has accepted since leaving the State Department in 2013. But what’s there is remarkable in a number of ways.
First, there’s the sheer volume: Bill Clinton gave an astounding 542 paid speeches over this 12-year period, which works out to a speech every eight days. And then, of course, there are the fees, ranging from a measly $28,100 for a speech to the London School of Economics in December 2001 (an act of charity, really; for no other speech was he paid less than $75,000) all the way up to the $750,000 he got for a November 2011 speech in Hong Kong to the Swedish telecom company Ericsson. Then there’s the Nigerian newspaper that paid him $700,000 for a speech in Lagos in March 2011, then gave him the same amount to do it again less than a year later.
While there are a bunch of self-help events in there of the Anthony Robbins variety (“The Power Within!”), most of it is corporations and associations of corporations; after all, they’re the people with the money.
The question to be asked is whether all this money would affect Hillary Clinton’s perspective and decision-making should she reach the White House. It’s certainly possible that, for instance, the significant speaking sums that came from the financial industry ($19.6 million) could have given her a friendlier perspective on Wall Street than she might have had otherwise.
But let’s compare two politicians. The first, during his time out of office, is paid $100,000 to sit on a corporate board. The second is paid the same fee to give a speech to the corporation. Which is more likely to assimilate that corporation’s values and feel obligated to later pursue its interests: the one who participated in multiple meetings and retreats, getting to know the corporation and finding ways to enhance its profits, or the one who parachuted in for an afternoon, had drinks with some of the executives, and talked for an hour to the company’s employees?
The reason we should care about this kind of thing is because it’s supposed to reveal something meaningful about what the person would do as president. You can argue that the fact that the Clintons have spent a lot of time hanging around with billionaires and corporate chieftains could alter their perspective on economic issues, and it well could. But so could hanging around those same people asking them for money. Don’t forget, Wall Street was one of Barack Obama’s largest sources of contributions in 2008; to raise over $16 million from them, he had to spend a lot of time listening intently to their concerns.
The reason Dems pointed to Mitt Romney’s wealth was that he had spent a good portion of his life in the private equity industry, where you almost inevitably gain a certain ruthless perspective on the relationship of people to profits. That perspective, Dems argued, would be reflected in the policies he pursued as president. Many people will look at all the money the Clintons have accumulated from corporate speeches and find it similarly unseemly, which I suppose isn’t entirely unfair.
But if you’re going to argue that it says something important about what sort of president Hillary Clinton would be, you should get specific. So based on the information we now have, does her potential presidency look different than it did before? How? I’m not sure it does.