Presidential Prestige for Sale or Rent,...

<i> Pat Choate, a political economist, has also written "The High-Flex Society."</i>

A number of former Presidents have engaged in post-presidential commercialism. Until recently, though, no former President has ever

rented out the prestige of the office or provided a foreign entity with public endorsements.

In October, 1989, (former President Ronald) Reagan hired himself out--for $2 million--to do public-relations work for Japan’s Fujisankei Communications. The Fujisankei conglomerate, headed by a controversial and conservative tycoon, owns Japan’s largest radio network, a national newspaper and the country’s most successful television chain.

For two of the nine days that Reagan was in Japan, he was an official guest of the Japanese government. Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko hosted a lunch for the Reagans at the Akasaka Palace in Tokyo. A state guest-house banquet was hosted by Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu and attended by three former prime ministers. The Japanese government presented Reagan with Japan’s highest honor, the Grand Cordon of the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum.


For the remainder of his trip, the ex-President worked for Fujisankei. He made two 20-minute speeches and attended company-sponsored events. He gave exclusive interviews to Fujisankei’s television stations and newspapers. He presided over a concert for 17,000 guests in Yokohama to raise money for the Reagan Presidential Library. He also solicited additional library contributions from wealthy Japanese industrialists.

While privately seeking Sony Corp. funds for his library, Reagan defended Sony’s controversial October, 1989, purchase of Columbia Pictures. The ex-President proclaimed, “I’m not too proud of Hollywood these days with the immorality that is shown in pictures, and the vulgarity . . . . I just have a feeling that Hollywood needs some outsiders to bring back decency and good taste to some of the pictures that are being made.”

As for the growing Japanese investment in America, Reagan said, “The United States still is the widest investor in the other countries . . . . So how can we complain if someone wants to invest in us?”

Most important, Reagan used his tour as an opportunity to blame America for the U.S.-Japan trade deficit. At a Fujisankei-sponsored banquet for Japanese industrialists, he said trade frictions between the two countries had been caused by “trade protectionists” in Washington--the people he “had to fight every day I was there.” It was a perfect recitation of the “It’s America’s fault” propaganda line that Japan had peddled throughout the 1980s.

Reagan concluded his trip with a brief talk aired on Fujisankei’s national television network. With “America the Beautiful” softly playing in the background, the ex-President thanked Fujisankei Communications for making his trip possible. He congratulated Fujisankei for its efforts to improve U.S.-Japan relations.

It is difficult to imagine Kakuei Tanaka, Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterrand or Margaret Thatcher providing a similar paid endorsement of an American firm.

Though with less pomp and circumstance, Jimmy Carter has also used his prestige on behalf of the Japanese--specifically, to promote the public career of Japanese billionaire Ryoichi Sasakawa. On Nov. 7, 1989, Carter praised Sasakawa and the Sasakawa foundations in a full-page advertisement placed in the Wall Street Journal. The ad featured an enormous picture of the ex-President in the center of the page. In the accompanying text, Carter described how Sasakawa’s foundations had provided financial backing for Global 2000, the ex-President’s agricultural aid project for Africa, through the Atlanta-based Carter Center. Global 2000 consumes much of Carter’s time and has helped rehabilitate his once less than popular image with the American public.

Sasakawa’s friendship and close association with the former President has done much for his personal prestige. Sasakawa and Carter travel together and have made several joint appearances. In 1985, Carter and his wife made an unpublicized trip to Japan to attend a memorial service for Sasakawa’s mother.


What is far less publicized is Sasakawa’s “unsavory political history,” as one State Department document describes it. In the pre-World War II period, he gained notoriety as a rich Japanese ultranationalist who had made his fortune in rice speculation in the late 1920s. In 1931, he founded the 15,000-member Kokusui Taishuto, Japan’s Fascist National Essence Mass Party. Members of the group donned black shirts, in imitation of Benito Mussolini’s Italian fascists. In fact, Sasakawa conferred in Rome with Mussolini, the man he called his political idol--the “perfect dictator and fascist"--in the early days of Kokusui Taishuto. According to declassified government records, moreover, Sasakawa flew to Italy and Germany before World War II to urge the consummation of the Axis military alliance.

In recent years, Sasakawa and other Japanese industrialists have cultivated incumbent Presidents by funding their pet projects. The Japan Economic Journal reports that Shigeru Kobayashi, a Japanese real-estate mogul worth an estimated $6 billion, “donated more than $1 million to Reagan projects in 1987 and 1988, including $100,000 to Nancy Reagan’s anti-drugs program and $1 million to the Reagan Historical Library in California.” When the departing President held a small farewell White House party for his friends in January, 1989, Kobayashi and his son were among the select group of guests.

In the 1980s, Japanese individuals and companies provided major contributions to build both the Reagan and Carter presidential libraries. At $100 per person, ticket sales from Reagan’s “friendship concert” in Yokohama, for instance, netted him more than $1 million for his library. The Japanese government contributed an additional $2 million to the project. The Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta has also received considerable support from Japan. Together, the donations of Sasakawa’s Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation and YKK, the Japanese zipper company, totaled more than $1 million.

Although it is disturbing to consider, future incumbent Presidents are certain to take note of the extent that the Japanese funded their predecessors’ pet projects. They are certain to recognize how rewarding Japan’s friendship might be when they themselves retire.


Someday, they themselves will need generous friends to help them support their presidential libraries and museums, the only archives for their presidential records and monuments to their presidency. While the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 authorizes the National Archives to maintain an ex-President’s library out of federal funds, fees paid by visitors and the sale of reproductions and documents, money for the land and the construction of the facilities must be obtained from private sources.

The architects of the U.S. Constitution were worldly men. They anticipated that foreign powers would attempt to sway the views and decisions of the President. The Constitution therefore forbids incumbent Presidents from accepting gifts from foreign interests.

But the Founding Fathers did not anticipate that sitting Presidents would seek foreign money to fund their private projects. They certainly could not have foreseen that ex-Presidents might turn to blatant commercialism after leaving office. Nor could they have imagined that ex-Presidents would seek funds from foreign powers to support their post-retirement activities.

Until recently, former Presidents were expected to comport themselves with the dignity befitting America’s highest and most honored position. For almost two centuries, their behavior met that expectation. But now former Presidents of the United States are available to do public-relations stints for America’s biggest trade competitors.


BOOK REVIEW: A review of “Agents of Influence” appears in the Book Review section on Page 10.

1990 Pat Choate. Reprinted with permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.