The Clinton Foundation: Does it matter?

It is hard to sympathize with Bill and Hillary Clinton as they find themselves embroiled in controversy over the Clinton Foundation. They announced last week that, if Mrs. Clinton is elected president, the foundation will stop taking gifts from foreign donors, which raises the question: Why not stop now? Are people at the foundation frantically calling foreign donors now, to get those donations in before the deadline? Won't that come out? Aren't these tactics of delay and obfuscation how the Clintons got their reputation for being untrustworthy in the first place?

The New York Times editorial board insisted it is an "ethical imperative" that Mrs. Clinton sever all ties with the foundation. I can't resist: Who turns to the Times' editorial board for ethical insight? It is like going to Taco Bell for authentic Mexican food.

The great Mark Silk, at RNS, has already assessed the situation. He reminds us of the ethical challenges faced by the Carter Center in its early days, and so places the blame for this tradition of ex-presidential do-gooderism at the feet of the otherwise hapless 39th president of the United States. It has become a meme that Carter has been a far better ex-president than he was a president. But, there is no amount of good that these former chief executives can accomplish that warrants their continued seizing of the spotlight. And, let's be clear: Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were both motivated in some sense by worthy and philanthropic goals, but politicians, like the rest of us, live in a world of mixed motives. Resigning the spotlight is hard, and these foundations remove some of the sting. They also allow the perpetuation of many of the perks of office. Politicians like to think they are indispensable, but they are not, and we are not doing them a favor by letting them convince themselves otherwise.

I would add a friendly amendment to Silk's thesis. I place some of the blame at the feet of Richard Nixon. He did not start a foundation or a center, but he did publish several books aimed at rehabilitating his image as a statesman. I don't think it worked. The day of his funeral, I went to the restaurant where I worked. One of our regulars, an older gentleman, was sitting at the bar. I asked if he had watched Nixon's funeral. He replied, "No, did they drive a stake through his heart?"

All politicians should write their memoirs. After that, they should retire from the public stage beyond the occasional speech and whatever work the management of a presidential library entails. It is unhealthy for a democracy if new slots on the stage are not opened with regularity. Stroking the egos of former presidents is redundant. And, creating these personalized, secular and necessarily politicized charities will, beyond doubt, harm the brand of charity over time.

The psychology of both the politicians and the demos are only part of the issue. Despite Donald Trump's repeated claims, there is no evidence of a "pay to play" conspiracy between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department when Mrs. Clinton was secretary there. You would think at this point, Trump would know that there doesn't have to be. The issue of access, although it is also a false issue, nonetheless conveys a sufficient sense that the Clintons are not like you and me and that they play by different rules. I say it is false because the foreign potentates who made contributions to the foundation did not need any special means to get access to the secretary of state: It was her job to take their calls. It has long puzzled me that large corporations pay D.C. lobbyists huge sums of money to gain access when, in fact, if the chairman of the Board of GM or GE needs to speak to the secretary of the treasury, he only needs to dial the number. And, over time, one would think that the perception of favored access being given to donors is the kind of self-correcting political liability it is almost impossible to root out of the system entirely.

There is no reason to stop the foundation from doing its good work. Appoint a prominent Republican to lead it, someone over whom the Clintons would obviously have little or no influence, say, Jeb Bush. Or, better yet, fold the foundation into the work of a Methodist or Baptist charitable agency, or an inter-denominational group like Bread for the World. Let Bill Clinton raise money for them, and pay for his own ticket to the fundraisers. There is nothing illegal, but there is something icky, about politicians getting rich when they leave office.

None of the issues above would have been raised had it not been for the familial issue. How can and how should our democracy deal with families like the Clintons and the Bushes that produce more than one top-tier politician? It certainly complicates everything. As a general rule, we should vote against them. Dynasties are not good for democracy. In this country of more than 300 millions of people, surely there are plenty of people not named Bush or Clinton who could serve as president.   

The real problem here is not so much the foundation itself as the tone deafness of the Clintons to the suspicions of their motives. I have noted before that there is something creepy about the ethics of the Clintons, something commonly found among the do-gooders of the world. It goes like this: I am a good person, and X is not a good thing to do, yet I did it, therefore X must not be such a bad thing after all. It is true that they no doubt mix up their prideful motives with their altruistic ones. Find me the politician who doesn't? But they take it to a level that is noxious.

Hillary Clinton is wrong about the foundation, just as she is wrong about the emails. But, her opponent is wrong about everything else and, at the end of the day, how she handled her emails, or whatever too chummy relations with foreign potentates prevailed at the Clinton foundation, these issues pale by comparison to, say, a habit for demeaning minorities, or a complete lack of understanding of the importance of NATO, or an aversion to reading anything longer than a 140 character tweet. The choice is not hard: You pick the ethically challenged and slightly solipsistic over the excessively narcissistic and intellectually vapid.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.] 

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