Behind a Bill Clinton speaking engagement: A $1,400 hotel phone bill and $700 dinner for two

When former presidents and other dignitaries traveled to California to wax nostalgic on the speaking circuit, they may have been demanding, but none insisted on being flown from San Francisco by private jet to a venue just 70 miles down the freeway.

That was before Bill Clinton came along.

Clinton changed the rules of political speech-making for cash. He would push not just corporate hosts but also nonprofits and universities to pay fees well beyond what they were accustomed to. His aides would turn what had been a freewheeling format into tightly scripted events where every question from the audience was screened. He and Hillary Clinton would become so skilled at churning profits out of their lectures that they would net more than $150 million from speaking alone after he left the White House.

Contracts and internal emails connected to half a dozen speeches Clinton gave in the Bay Area soon after departing the White House offer a glimpse into the unusual demands and outsize expense reports associated with bringing him to town. The events took place as part of a speaker series sponsored by the Foothill Deanza Community College District, another by UC Davis and another run by a for-profit firm. The community college hosted him again in 2012. The documents became public through an open-records request filed by the Republican National Committee amid a presidential race in which the lucrative speaking fees paid to the Clintons are being closely examined.  

They show a former president who deftly avoided discussing past scandals by refusing questions that were not screened by his staff in advance. There is the nearly $1,400 bill for a day’s worth of phone calls from San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel and the $700 dinner for two. And they also show that an agency representing Clinton continued to pursue a deal with an event host who emailed a racist remark about audiences and jokingly referred to the male aides Clinton traveled with as his mistresses.

Speechmaking is as politically charged as it is lucrative for the Clintons. Hillary Clinton’s refusal to disclose transcripts from speeches she gave to Goldman Sachs and other large corporations has become a campaign liability. Her husband’s collection of fees from corporations of as much as $750,000 for a single speech is a source of relentless charges of conflict of interest from critics.

By his advisors’ own admission, the former president pushed the limits of what could be charged for speeches when he entered the market in 2001.

Hillary Clinton would later say her family at that time was “dead broke” and deep in debt after years of attorneys’ fees related to impeachment and other Clinton controversies. The going rate for former presidents to deliver remarks in a public venue had been in the range of $60,000 per speech.

Event organizers in California were taken aback when Bill Clinton, freshly signed by the Harry Walker Agency, demanded double that amount. They assumed he would ultimately take the $60,000 they had paid to Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Jimmy Carter.

He wouldn’t. Bill Clinton collected $100,000 per speech for six events over the course of a week in November 2002. The newly disclosed records offer little insight into the role Clinton himself played in pushing the fees up and demanding unorthodox arrangements for expenses. The former president has been known to leave such money issues to his handlers, often remaining aloof to the day-to-day accounting details involved in the intertwined Clinton business and nonprofit empires. 

The fee hardly entitled audiences to a candid interaction with the former president. The contract with the two events at a speaker series affiliated with Foothill-Deanza Community College District demanded all questions receive approval from Clinton’s staff.

“We wish we never had to give in to that,” said Richard Henning, who runs the series, which has hosted all but one former president since Gerald Ford. “He is the only person I can think of that required it. It has never happened before or since.”

Despite the soaring costs, event organizers say the speeches did not drain the budgets of the community colleges or university, which used a combination of ticket revenue and scaling back their spending on other speakers and performers to keep Clinton from breaking the bank. Those interviewed by The Times say they have no regrets about bringing Clinton to their audiences.

But they may have some lingering heartburn.

Henning worked with UC Davis and an entrepreneur named Bruce Vogel, who ran another speaker series in the Bay Area, to hire Clinton for consecutive events each group held independently in 2002. Henning and Vogel seemed to be deeply frustrated as they tried to negotiate with Clinton’s people over what questions would be acceptable to ask him while he was on stage.

“Terrible, and terribly general, is how Vogel described some queries proposed by the former president’s staff, which included the question: “Is the world a better place now than when you entered politics, with a view to making a difference?”

“I’m almost embarrassed to ask them,” Vogel wrote in an email. Henning had warned in a separate message: “People will fall asleep.”

Apparently, even Clinton agreed. After a lackluster question-and-answer exchange at Henning’s first event, the former president encouraged him to ask some tougher questions the next night.

Clinton aides involved with the events at the time said they insisted on screening questions to protect the integrity of a former president at unfamiliar venues controlled by unknown hosts. There was a risk, one said, of it becoming a “circus act” if too much was left to chance.

Henning asked Clinton about his pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, who had been indicted in one of the biggest tax evasion cases in history.

As Clinton was delivering a fiery response, according to Henning’s emails, Clinton advisor Doug Band “came out on to the stage, whacked me on the back and said, ‘Get him off the stage; he is dying out there.’”

The negotiations that led to Clinton’s speeches in California would at time take bizarre turns. Vogel inserted a brief racist rant into one of his negotiating emails. “Our audiences are white,” he wrote to the Harry Walker Agency in January of 2001; “some of them actually have morals/ethics.”

He also mockingly referred to Band and another Clinton aide who would be traveling with him as “monica, monica,” a reference to Clinton’s philandering with Monica Lewinsky. The Harry Walker Agency, which represent Bill and Hillary Clinton, did not let any of it interfere with closing a deal.

The agency did not return calls and emails. Reached at his home, Vogel, who has retired, declined to comment beyond saying the emails reviewed by The Times were confidential.

“We never give out that information,” he said. “That’s private information.” 

Clinton would demand in his contract to be shuttled by private jet from San Francisco to UC Davis, where he spoke at the Mondavi Center. The center had to appeal to its network of donors to find someone able to fly him the 70 miles, something it had never done and hasn’t since. “That is the one and only time,” said Jeremy Ganter, director of programming at the Mondavi Center.

The center also found itself, along with the other event hosts on that Clinton swing, in the awkward position of having to pay some oddly large expenses.

Fearful that their costs would get out of hand, the event organizers worked with the Fairmont to discreetly view the charges being rung up by Clinton and his entourage on each of the five days they stayed there. Assurances from the Harry Walker Agency that they were “reasonable expenses for a president traveling on the road for week” and that “we have never had a client complain” provided little comfort to the event hosts.

They ultimately got socked with the $1,400 hotel phone bill and $700 dinner for two.

There were other worries, too, like a limo ride. Who would the president ride with? It so happened that one of the Mondavi Center’s big donors, Angelo Tsakopoulas, is also a whale for the Democrats, so his name emerged. Organizers could not recall whether that limo ride happened.  

Then, there were the people to keep away from Clinton. “Are there any restrictions of who introduces him at the lecture?” said notes sent around by UC Davis organizers. There was only one name listed, that of the unpopular governor who within a year would find himself recalled from office: “Gray Davis.”

evan.halper@latimes.com

Follow me: @evanhalper

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