Bill Clinton is not the first ex-president to find creative ways to cash in during retirement, but he is in a different league than the previous 41. The kind of money Clinton has amassed in just seven years is less troubling than the means by which he pocketed it, and his wife will be hearing more of those concerns on the presidential campaign trail.
No ex-president should live in the kind of poverty that marked the later lives of Thomas Jefferson or James Monroe. But the reason Congress adopted the Former Presidents Act a half-century ago was to protect not only their financial well-being but the stature of the office they held as well. American Heritage quotes a Senate committee from 1957: "We expect a former president to engage in no business or occupation which would demean the office he has held or capitalize upon it in any improper way."
Clinton, who has reported $52-million in speaking fees alone, has capitalized with a capital "C." Most of the sources for his speaking fees have yet to be revealed, but the $800,000 he deposited in the Clinton joint bank account from a Bogota-based pro-Colombia trade group is causing his wife no small headache. Sen. Hillary Clinton may tell voters she opposes Colombian trade, but she also has financed her campaign with a $5-million check from that same Clinton joint bank account.
The former president also has pocketed $3.3-million in consulting fees from a computer database company and $15-million from a business partnership that includes his political friend, investor Ron Burkle, and the sheik of Dubai. What does Clinton possibly bring to the table other than his presidential connections? The relationship with Burkle and Dubai is apparently embarrassing enough to Clinton that he is trying to untangle it in case Hillary is elected president. But even that would prove lucrative. According to the Wall Street Journal, Clinton may pocket another $20-million from the breakup.
The total income for both Clintons in the years since the former president left the White House is a staggering $109-million, and Politico.com has reported a disconcerting footnote for taxpayers. Under the Former Presidents Act, the federal government also will provide Clinton with $8-million in support by the end of this year. That is almost the same amount, over the same period, as Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush combined. The rent on Clinton's 8,300-square-foot New York City office alone has cost $3.2-million, and none of these numbers include Secret Service protection.
Clinton's supporters claim he has every right to do well in private life after all his years of doing good in public service. What they miss is the asset he is bartering: the U.S. presidency. Upon leaving office, Harry Truman once wrote: "I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency."