06.01.2017
  • United States

An Equal Opportunity Racket

Hillary Clinton is right that cashing in on speaking fees is nothing new. But neither is public criticism of it.

Hillary Clinton in 2013. The Atlantic Council

Elections may come and go, but the paid speeches will always be with us, as we were reminded during Clinton’s appearance at the Code Conference yesterday.

The Q&A session is part of a series of public appearances Clinton has made since Trump’s inauguration for the dual purposes of keeping her brand alive and exonerating herself of responsibility for her disastrous campaign and loss. But in last night’s talk, discussion turned to Clinton’s decision to give exorbitantly priced speeches for various Wall Street firms, including Goldman Sachs, which became a major issue during the Democratic campaign.

Yesterday at Code, Clinton trialled a brand new defense against critics of her speaking fees: they’re sexist.

“Men got paid for speeches they made. I got paid for the speeches I made,” she said. “I thought it was unfairly used.”

Clinton is correct that male policymakers have also hawked themselves on the public speaking circuit for eye-popping sums. But the idea that there was a sexist double standard at play when Clinton was criticized for doing the same is clearly absurd. The men Clinton is referring to also received vociferous criticism for their cashing in after leaving office.

Call Him Dollar Bill

Clinton should know this because one of those men is her husband. While Bill Clinton was hardly the first world leader to make money off the lecture circuit once he was out of office, he made the practice truly his own, making a then-unheard-of $9.2 million from speeches in his first year away from the presidency alone. His spokeswoman declared him “the most sought-after speaker in the history of the lecture circuit” and said the head of his agency “has been doing this for thirty years, and he’s never seen anything like” the clamor for the former president to speak.

At the time, numerous outlets kept tabs on the vast sums of money Clinton was raking in. The New York Daily News ran a constant stream of headlines like:

That last article accused Clinton of “buck-raking like no former President in history.”

In 2002, the Observer wrote that “the man the Americans now call ‘Dollar Bill’ may have left presidential office under various clouds, but he has turned himself into a one-man roadshow and a multi-million dollar business.” The paper referred to Clinton “nett[ing] a shameless $9.2 million during his first year out of office.” The president of Common Cause at the time told the paper it was “troubling for the spouse of a Senator to take in $9 million for nominal work.”

Just as questions were raised during the Democratic primary over the potential conflict of interest posed by Hillary Clinton’s hefty speaking fees from Goldman Sachs (an “artful smear” in her view), so her husband’s speeches were shadowed by accusations of impropriety at the time.

Clinton at the time was dogged by controversy over his eleventh-hour pardon of billionaire fugitive Marc Rich, which the New York Times called a “shocking abuse of presidential power.” UBS Warburg of London backed out of paying Clinton for a speech in February 2000, concerned about the appearance of a quid pro quo since one of its senior executives had written Clinton urging him to pardon Rich.

Likewise, the Observer noted that most of Clinton’s speeches had been given to investment banks and public relations companies, something that “sits uneasily with Clinton’s pardon of fugitive tycoon and convicted fraudster Marc Rich.”

Similarly, at a speech for software company Oracle, Clinton was asked if the fee was payback for his administration’s antitrust lawsuit against its rival Microsoft. One Wall Street executive labelled it a “thank you for Microsoft speech.” He later also earned some headlines for a speech he gave at an event for Accoona, a new search engine, which came very close to making him the first former president to ever promote a product.

Bill continued to receive criticism for his speech-making well into Hillary’s campaign. The LA Times reported in July 2016 that Bill shocked event organizers at the University of California-Davis when his agency demanded double the money as every other former president, as well as a private jet to fly him seventy miles from San Francisco. He also received scrutiny for speaking fees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a cricket charity, and many others.

Enough to Go Around

Another man who caused controversy through his public speaking engagements was the Clintons’ close friend and political ally Tony Blair, the former British prime minister. Blair followed Clinton into the world of public speaking after leaving office in 2007 and quickly surpassed him, at one point becoming the world’s highest-paid public speaker. His fees received relentless press coverage.

Just as Clinton tried to squeeze out as much money as possible for his speeches from even nonprofits and universities, Blair was also uncompromising, at one point pulling out of speaking at the World Hunger Forum because the event organizers couldn’t meet his fee of £330,000 (around $420,000), something he was widely pilloried over.

Blair was also mocked by the press for, at one point, tacking on a £180 charge for photo opportunities at an event that already cost around £420 per person. The tabloid Daily Mail said that he had “found a way to make more money with just a smile” and “may be looking for a little extra cash for some planned home renovations.” The London Times called it “the latest gimmick to boost the former prime minister’s earning potential on lecture tours.”

After 2009, Blair was joined on the speaking circuit by his friend George W. Bush. Two years later, the Center for Public Integrity’s Peter H. Stone examined Bush’s public-speaking career, noting that despite his stated desire to keep a low profile, Bush made $15 million from speaking in the time he was gone, including “three separate speeches to hedge-fund executives, a Swiss bank sanctioned for keeping secret bank accounts, and a pro golf event underwritten by the accounting firm involved in the Tyco International financial scandal.”

Much as critics would assail the potential political influence involved in Clinton’s paid speeches six years later, historian Julian Zelizer told Stone that Bush’s decision to make “enormous amounts of money giving lectures mostly to corporate groups and other select audiences” could be viewed as “distasteful” by Americans. He added that “for some people it’s another version of the revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street.” Historian Robert Dallek called it “self-serving” and an example of “following the good old American adage to make as much as you can.”

It was also widely reported that Bush charged a veterans’ charity six figures to speak at one of its fundraisers, with one Iraq War vet telling the press that “it’s kind of a slap in the face.” He was also criticized for charging $100,000 to speak at a homeless shelter fundraiser.

It’s not always heads of government. Former treasury secretary Tim Geithner received plenty of press attention when he started earning six figures per speech from the same financial sector that viewed him as their “man in Washington.” When he first ran for president in 2007, Rudy Giuliani’s paid speaking career received scrutiny, with the Smoking Gun calling him “high-rolling” and “diva-like,” and it received further scrutiny when he was in the running for secretary of state last year.

Across the pond, former British prime minister David Cameron’s £120,000-a-pop speaking fees have racked up their share of headlines, as have those of former chancellor George Osborne, former prime minister Gordon Brown, and former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg.

In fact, men were receiving criticism for such speeches long before Clinton was even in the White House. In 1989, Reagan entered what the Washington Post called a “swirling controversy” over the $2 million he was paid for giving two twenty-minute speeches paid for by the Fujinsankei conglomerate in Japan.

Right-wing columnist William Safire was unsparing: “Let us grant our former leaders the right to make money in great fistfuls, especially in memoirs; it`s a free country, and they are private citizens,” he wrote. “But there is such a thing as seemliness, decorum, respect for high office once held.” “Former presidents haven’t always comported themselves with dignity after leaving the Oval Office,” said the New York Times on the matter. “But none have plunged so blatantly into pure commercialism.”

In an editorial titled, “Ronald Reagan Inc.,” the Baltimore Sun also criticized Reagan’s decision. “We don’t know at what point an ex-president crosses the line between popular public appearance and exploitation of office, but we do know that giving million-dollar speeches for foreign corporations is way over the line,” it stated. While Jimmy Carter refused to criticize Reagan for the fee, he told the LA Times that “that’s not what I want out of life. We give money, we don’t take it.”

Reagan had in fact been spending his post-presidential career doing two to three paid speeches each month, something which the LA Times argued had contributed to his “fall from grace” and created the impression that “he has been inappropriately been cashing in on his eight-year presidency.” Regarding his speeches in Japan, political scientist Erwin Hargrove told the paper that “Reagan probably overstepped.”

(Nancy Reagan defended the speeches, however. “We didn’t ask for the money that was offered in Japan,” she said. “It was offered to us.”)

And before Reagan, there was Gerald Ford, who his own biographer says “created the commercialized former presidency,” albeit by leveraging his connections and his stature as a former president for business opportunities rather than through speaking fees.

Clinton’s claim is particularly absurd given that it was barely more than a month ago that Barack Obama — who, we might recall, is also a man — received a torrent of criticism for pocketing $400,000 for a speech from a Wall Street firm, the same industry Obama allowed to get away with various crimes scot-free. (Similar to Clinton now, some tried to claim criticism of Obama for this was racist).

Greed Knows no Gender Bounds

Sexism is unfortunately alive and well, and continues to represent an ugly, often invisible barrier for all women to varying degrees, including Hillary Clinton, who has faced decades of hideous sexist attacks alongside legitimate critiques of her record.

But to use sexism to wave away legitimate criticisms of Clinton’s lucrative career of public speaking is a cynical abuse of the term — not to mention one that is starkly at odds with the facts, given the long history of criticisms of male policymakers cashing in. The only double standard here is that criticisms of taking huge sums of money from the financial industry and other corporate interests only became an “artful smear” and “McCarthyite” when applied to a Democrat in an election year.

When it comes to speaking fees, greed is gender-neutral.