There is no such thing as a free speech for politicians who are involved in today’s lucrative world of speechmaking for pay. Promoting her book in a television interview, Hillary Clinton, who reportedly is paid $200,000 per speech while her husband received as much as $700,000 for one speech, caught the attention of the media by commenting that they left the White House "dead broke" and had to struggle. She said this made her appreciate the struggles of working families. At that time, she had to be aware of what was in store for them financially, as they were about to enter what the politicians in the nation’s capital call the "buckraking circuit" for ex-politicians and spouses.
The speakers and the organizers of these speaking engagements know that the speeches don’t have to contain anything worthwhile, new, or inspiring for the audience. Hillary Clinton’s speeches for the most part, according to press reports, are no exception. For the most part many of them are rather simple, according to the New York Times, containing such uninspired comments as: "Leadership is a team effort," or "A whisper can be louder than a shout."
This speech circuit is a scheme by trade groups, chambers of commerce, hedge fund managers and others to pay outlandish fees -- former President Ronald Reagan was reportedly paid $2 million for two 20-minute speeches in Japan -- to lure politician into showing up at events, for two principal reasons.
One reason for these events, is to exploit the celebrity of the speaker for the organizers’ profit. Former President George W. Bush, who is typically paid six figures for his speeches and appearances, was lured into speaking at a motivational seminar organized by a group that charged high fees to vendors who attended the event to peddle their products to the audience attracted by Bush’s celebrity. The other reason is for trade groups and others, representing businesses from the auto industry to banking and the like, to gain initial political access for anticipated political influence for their businesses in the future. In Hillary Clinton’s case the big money payments for her speeches appear to be more in the nature of a down payment by many of these groups for anticipated future access to her as potentially the next president, rather than a payment for wisdom and inspiration from her speech.
One may very well ask, what is wrong with a former president, his spouse or a presidential contender cashing in on his or her celebrity by being paid what the market is willing to pay big bucks for it? The answer is that the influence of big money in politics is one of the big political issues in the country today. And the majority of Americans want politicians to do something about this. Former presidents, their spouses, and wannabe presidents send the wrong message by shamelessly commercializing the dignity of the highest political office in the nation by taking part in what critics call the "money-grubbing" speech circuit to share in some of this wealth.
Even worse, individuals like the Clintons who do not need to do this, do it to add to their wealth. Bill Clinton, according to Celebrity Net Worth, has a net worth of $80 million. Additionally he is receiving and annual pension of $201,700 and continues collecting from $150,000 to $700,000 for his speeches. Hillary Clinton reportedly has made $5 million in speaking fees since she left the State Department in 2013.
Unlike the Clintons, former President Harry Truman was in real need of financial help when he left the White House in 1953. There was no pension then for ex-presidents. Truman reportedly had a pension from his WW I military service of $112.56 per month and little else. He was so poor he had to move into his mother-in-law’s house. But he refused to cash in on his celebrity. He refused to be exploited based "on the prestige and dignity of the "presidency." Prior presidents like Thomas Jefferson died with large debts.
In 1958, Congress finally passed a law to "maintain the dignity" of the office of the presidency by establishing a presidential pension and other perks. According to a 2004 Congressional Research Service report by Wendy Ginsburg, this law was enacted because of Truman’s financial plight so that he and future ex-presidents would not have to accept deals like the speechmaking circuit today which dishonors the dignity of that office.
If Hillary Clinton intends to run for president she would be well-advised to follow Truman’s example and stop grubbing for more money on the speechmaking circuit. One of the reasons she lost her bid for the Democratic Party nomination for president was the public perception that if she were elected it would continue to be business as usual on Capitol Hill while President Obama won the nomination in large measure by playing the political change card that he would change things.
This time Hillary Clinton could send an early signal in her presidential campaign that she really is for change when it comes to the problem of too much money in politics.
Robert "Frank" Jakubowicz is a Pittsfield lawyer and a regular Eagle contributor.