When Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton is asked on the campaign trail what her husband would do in the unprecedented role of "first laddy," she suggests that he'd serve as a kind of goodwill ambassador to the world.
The answer is decent, but the question is strange because he already has a demanding job: He's the head of the William J. Clinton Foundation, which tries to make a serious dent in such problems as climate change, HIV/AIDS and Third World poverty. And he shows no signs of wanting to quit.
Typically, ex-presidents make money on the lecture circuit while finishing the fundraising for their presidential libraries. In fact, they can start the fundraising in office, without being subject to the usual campaign finance rules. President Bush, for example, is busying himself raising half a billion dollars for his post-presidency, with, no doubt, much of that coming from individuals interested in influencing public policy. Not only can this money be collected in unlimited sums, there's no disclosure of who is doing the giving.
To close this wildly inappropriate loophole, Hillary Clinton is sponsoring a bill that would mandate disclosure of financial contributions made to sitting presidents' presidential libraries. It's a good idea. Her husband, in turn, has done her one better by promising that, should she become president and her bill be passed into law, he would voluntarily comply with the law's disclosure rules. After all, donors seeking to curry favor with the president could simply spread cash to the foundation controlled by her spouse.
So far so good, except for one thing.
Disclosing who's contributing to Bill Clinton's foundation after his wife wins the election would be about four years too late. The voters ought to have this information before the election, when it could still make a difference. Indeed, we really ought to find out who his donors are before the nomination is settled.
If the former president wants his gesture of transparency to be taken seriously, he ought to disclose right away. After all, by sponsoring a law to mandate disclosure of donations to presidential foundations and agreeing that Bill would voluntarily comply, the Clintons have already conceded the key points of principle.
And it's impossible to view the Clinton Foundation and the Hillary Clinton campaign as entirely separate enterprises. Bill is, naturally, one of Hillary's key surrogates on the campaign trail. The Clinton Global Initiative's annual meeting last week in New York City featured such key Hillary advisors as former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and retired Gen. Wesley Clark. Peter Daou, who helps the Clinton campaign with online communications, used to have the same job at the Clinton Foundation. And Ira Magaziner, once the point man on Hillary's healthcare plan, is now the top staffer at the foundation.
There's nothing improper about any of this. One expects a married couple to know the same people, and the Clinton campaign isn't shy about pointing out that it has the most experienced team in the field precisely because of its ties to the former Clinton administration. But because it's presumed that big-dollar donors to the Clinton Foundation are gaining access to and some measure of influence with the foundation's top dog, is it such a stretch to think that might extend to his White House-seeking wife as well?
Because the Clinton Foundation doesn't disclose its backers, there's no way to tell exactly what's at stake. The Global Initiative's annual meeting, however, displayed a list of sponsors that included purely charitable outfits such as the Rockefeller Foundation, but also Pfizer, a major player in the heavily regulated pharmaceutical industry and a firm whose bottom line could be greatly influenced by a future Clinton administration's policies.
Microsoft, another sponsor, was actually targeted for breakup by Clinton's Justice Department, only to see the suit dropped when the Bush administration came to power.
What's more, presidential foundations -- unlike political campaigns -- can accept contributions from foreign citizens and even foreign governments. So, although Hillary Clinton is barred from cashing a $100 check from David Beckham, on the theory that he might be attempting to undermine U.S. sovereignty (or force decent Americans to play soccer), Bill is free to have his annual meeting co-sponsored by the country of Oman, whose interests surely don't overlap 100% with those of the U.S.
Most likely, those companies (and one sultanate) that wanted their names on a poster outside the Global Initiative meeting rooms weren't after anything more insidious than a little good publicity. The donors to worry about are the ones who aren't eager to brag about their generosity.
To know whether such worries are warranted, we need to know who the donors are, and we need to know now -- before it's too late.
Matthew Yglesias is an associate editor of the Atlantic Monthly. matthewyglesias.theatlantic.com