It’s been a while since the Clintons left the White House, trailing presidential pardons, their bags and shipping crates stuffed with what congressional investigators said were $360,000 worth of gifts — china, cutlery and furniture (including tens of thousands of dollars worth of items for which Hillary had registered at a fine jewelry and gifts shop in late 2000, during the window before senatorial limits on gift-taking kicked in). Part of the treasure turned out to be White House property, and they had to send it back. That was just over seven years ago.
Now, thanks to Hillary’s release of her tax returns, we learn that during those seven years, the Clintons earned about $109 million. Almost $52 million of that came from Bill’s speaking fees, another $29.6 million from his book royalties, some from other business dealings, and some from Hillary’s book royalties.
This is a great country, and part of its greatness is that we have elections in which competition can ultimately induce even a Hillary Clinton to engage in all sorts of illuminating disclosures.
But there is plenty here that leaves me deeply uneasy, and that is before we get to questions such as the specific sources of income (via places such as Dubai, or China), or how much of what the Clintons gave to their family foundation was actually disbursed. Let us assume that all this money was made within the limits of the law. The Clintons worked hard, they paid their taxes, and let us assume they did only things they were allowed to do.
Something still feels very wrong. I have this vision of teaching children today about the workings of the American presidency, and having to explain that it has become a job which can be parlayed afterward into a fantastically lucrative speaking career. The lucky winner of the presidency can exit the White House with a multi-million dollar meal ticket, and who can argue? There are folks out there who will pay more than $250,000 for a single speech. So why not rake in the big bucks?
And then there is part two of the new civics lesson, which is that in these free-wheeling times, there is no reason the president’s spouse should not run for office. And if the abundant perks and chores meant to dignify the country’s First Lady (or First Man, or whatever…) translate into prominence that provides a big boost toward winning a Senate seat, well, why not? And if a Senator wants to run for president, well, again, why not? And if the many millions earned by the ex-president make it a lot easier for the spouse to do such things as lend $5 million to her own campaign, well, hey, why not?
Here’s one big reason why not. Because even in societies thoroughly steeped in rule of law, there are certain understandings about what is seemly and what is not — and especially at high levels of government, these things are important. When Americans elect a president, there is an implicit understanding that the job will be treated as a matter of high trust, and that its perks and fame will be handled with a certain humility and restraint — not as a ticket to a stuff-your-cart shopping spree, or an all-you-can-eat family buffet.
One might well wonder what, exactly, the folks who pay $250,000 for a speech from an ex-president think they are buying. But even more disturbing is the question: What do Bill and Hillary think these speech-lovers believe is worth all that money? The contents of the speech?
Politics ain’t beanbag; it never was. Hillary may go down in flames, and these tax returns could fuel the fire. But the larger question deserves some thought: Where do we draw the line in the leveraging of the American presidency? If these are to be the new customs of those who pass through the White House, are we heading for the day when we might as well just auction off the job, and be done with it?