The latest dramas surrounding Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential bid – the money paid to the Clinton Foundation and directly to her for speaking gigs, and her unwillingness to take any questions from the press corps – appear at first blush as run-of-the-mill Clinton scandals: They are bad enough to make you say “ick” but not bad enough to get anyone indicted. But they show something else. Clinton and her campaign team (and much of the press corps) is not just out of touch with regular Americans, they appear to live in an alternate universe.
Let’s start with the money. Some former presidents happily remove themselves from the spotlight. Others, like Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush, engage in some variation of charitable work and, in Carter’s case, there is even a public policy dimension to the work of the Carter Center. But, none previously had a family member waiting in the wings for a third act of exercising power and making decisions that would have profound effects on the people writing the checks. Donors with the best of intentions find themselves embroiled in Clinton drama.
Ah, you say, but what about the Bush family. I confess great sympathy for the view articulated by Barbara Bush, and since withdrawn, that there are plenty of other families besides the Clintons and the Bushes, who can live in the White House. It is interesting that I have seen almost no in-depth analysis of donors to George H.W. Bush’s Thousand Points of Light foundation and what interests they might have in a potential third Bush presidency. Instead, with Jeb Bush, the focus has been not on a conflict of interest but a conflict of loyalties, as displayed last week when Jeb did not want to throw his brother under the bus but also had to distance himself from the decision to go to war in Iraq. Such questions are idiosyncratic, of course, and they will be applied equally to Mrs. Clinton as the press corps seeks to find differences between her policies and those adopted by her husband, just as the press thinks it is news that Jeb views the world differently, eight years on, from the way his brother did. Time marches on. Alas, poor Bl. Junipero Serra is being adjudged by twenty-first century standards too. It is madness, but inevitable madness.
This morning’s Washington Post has a front page story on the speaking fees Mrs. Clinton earned since leaving the State Department. The lead paragraph notes that in one of her last paid speaking engagements, Mrs. Clinton was paid $315,000 for a speech to an eBay summit on women in the workplace. The rest of the article details other similar huge speaking fees from other companies who have a stake in the decisions the next president will make. I am glad these connections are being looked into but the real scandal is hiding in plain sight: What speech is worth $315,000? Didn’t Mrs. Clinton think there is something obscene about making more for a 20-minute speech than a member of Congress makes in a year? I care less about the conflicts of interest and more about the lack of proportion and the utter absence of modesty.
I know, I know. If a literary agent came to me with a book idea, and I agreed, it would be that agent’s job to get as much of an advance as the market would bear. But, that is the problem eating away at our culture: Our sense of what is right and what is wrong is overly determined by what the market will bear. I am dying to hear one of my laissez faire friends defend Mrs. Clinton’s speaking fees. I think they are indefensible. And, what is more problematic for her presidential ambitions, the fact that she blithely took these huge sums, because the market would bear them, does not make me believe her when she says she wants to be a champion for the working class. Conduct a quick thought experiment. If former President Clinton was raking in huge speaking fees, why didn’t Mrs. Clinton, or someone among her political advisers, say to themselves: You know, if we say we are only go to do free speeches, because the family doesn’t need the money, and we are going to schedule speeches at inner city schools or community colleges not Silicon Valley summits, wouldn’t that make it easier, politically, to assert that she wants to be a champion of ordinary Americans? If I were advising a GOP candidate, or Sen. Bernie Sanders or Gov. Martin O’Malley, I would suggest they insert a line that says something like, “We should, of course, examine the potential conflicts of interest. But, I am more worried about the conflict of values, about what it says about a person who thinks a speech is worth such an obscene amount of money.”
Team Clinton is also not making their candidate available to the press corps. This may not cost them as much as you might think: Most Americans are less than fond of the press. But, it feeds a narrative, akin to the vast sums raised by speaking gigs, that the rules the rest of the world lives by do not apply to the Clintons. Other candidates, they have to deal with the press, but not us. Other people, they can eke out a living by the sweat of their brow, but not us. People do not want to entrust a large amount of power to anyone who thinks the rules do not apply to them too. The people are right to think that.
We are more than a year away from selecting our next president, and I am disgusted already. Two weeks ago, when the British elections results came in, I pulled out a biography of Queen Anne. If, as appeared likely, the UK might be breaking up, it seemed a good idea to recall why it was put together in the first place. The book did not do a good job of explaining the Act of Union, but it was instructive for the 2016 presidential contest. Anne had all the heroic virtues and all the heroic faults of her family. We read with a sense of wonder that so much in the political life of Britain and of all Europe hinged on her mood, and ambassadors and spies sent urgent messages reporting on the slightest changes in her attitudes and health. Of course, her fickleness was as nothing compared to the ficklesness of a modern electorate. But, political reporters would do well to acquaint themselves with all the psychological impediments that come with court life, and see how much of that applies to the Clintons and the Bushes. It is not healthy. And the fact that the press corps is missing the big money scandal in plain sight indicates how far the unhealthiness spreads.