The former president has been widely criticized for accepting a $2 million payment last fall for a visit to Japan sponsored by that country's largest media conglomerate, provoking assertions, even among Republicans, that he put the presidency up for sale.
Yes, that is outrageous when an ex-president can pocket that much money for giving a speech. Ironically, that quote has nothing to do with Bill Clinton, or the bruhaha over the $109 million that he and his wife have earned in a few short years since leaving the White House. It's from a February 1990 Boston Globe article about Ronald Reagan, who opened the floodgates to big post-presidential bucks. (Shockingly, there wasn't much economic demand for the three who came before him: Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon.).
So Bill Clinton isn't the first ex-president to cash in -- just the most over-the-top and unseemly. That's not a total surprise -- unlike Reagan or the Bushes, he didn't really have any money, or even a house, before coming to Washington, and he had millions in legal bills when he left town. But I think he's paid those off, and more, with some $51 million in speaking fees. And check out some of his audiences:
-- Some $150,000 from a real estate company in China that's headed by a Communist Party official there -- a speech I'm sure his wife would like to forget: "WTO (World Trade Organization) and Chinese economy.")
-- Saudi Arabia's Dabbagh investment firm, which paid $600,000 for two speeches by the ex-president.
-- There there's these two, also reported by the Washington Post.
Besides Goldman Sachs, the two firms that have paid Clinton the most over the past six years are foreign-based. Gold Services International, an event organizer based in Bogota, Colombia, brought Clinton to Latin America in the summer of 2005 for $800,000 in speaking fees. The Power Within, a motivational-speech company in Toronto, paid Clinton $650,000 for speeches in Canada in 2005 and brought him back for an undisclosed sum in 2006. The company was founded by Salim Khoja, a Kenyan immigrant who years earlier was convicted of stock fraud and was barred for life from the brokerage business.
All reported, all legal -- but nothing either to diminish the idea that the American presidency is for sale, and has been since the 1980s. Not so coincidentally, that was around the time that the phase "greed is good" really took off, when Americans came to believe that if you're really good at something -- whether it's hitting a little round ball or serving a leader of the free world -- that you're naturally entitled to become a multimillionaire as well.
It wasn't always that way: A few ex-presidents, including U.S. Grant, fell into relative poverty, and even Harry Truman liived quite modestly. In 1958, Congress reached the fair conclusion that an ex-president shouldn't be poor, which is why it created a presidential pension and why the perks for former POTUSes have grown over the years.
Today, the base pay for ex-presidents (regardless of age) is $191,000 a year, plus hundreds of thousands more for an office, staff, travel and other expenses. But if every president is going to make $10 million a year giving speeches (and Bush 43 has already said he plans to do the exact same thing -- "replensih the ol' coffers" -- when he leaves), what is the point.
Here's a couple of suggestions:
-- Once an ex-president has topped the $1 million mark in outside income, he should be required to start paying the taxpayers' back with that second $1 million. (That's apparently one speech for Clinton, right?)
-- There should be an extensive disclosure form for any speech to an ex-president that pays $50,000 or more, posted online and instantly accessible to the media.
It looks like there's no way to stop the American presidents from cashing in, so at least we can shame them a little bit.