It’s open season on Hillary Rodham Clinton again.
This week, carefully coiffed and with a wardrobe occupying a neutral zone between Ann Taylor elegance and Chico’s practicality, Clinton began making the promotional rounds for her new book, “Hard Choices.” And the dissection went into high gear.
ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer grilled Clinton on topics ranging from Benghazi to Monica Lewinsky, most of which Clinton handled with well-rehearsed aplomb.
One answer, however, came across as less than market tested. When asked about her speaking fees, which can run around $200,000 per speech — “five times the median income,” Sawyer noted — Clinton made a boneheaded move. She said she needed the money.
“We came out of the White House not only dead broke but in debt,” Clinton told Sawyer. (Bill Clinton drew a salary of $200,000 as president but incurred millions in legal fees.) “And we struggled to piece together the resources for mortgages for houses and for Chelsea’s education.”
Almost immediately, critics began pointing out that one such house was a $1.7-million estate in Chappaqua, N.Y., which Clinton purchased in anticipation of her run for a New York Senate seat. The other was a $2.85-million mansion on Washington’s Embassy Row.
Clinton attempted to clarify things, saying next that she appreciated the hardships experienced by many Americans and that “what we faced … meant that we just had to keep working really hard.”
But it was too little, too late. The main story around Clinton, at least this week, has been that she “gaffed.” On Twitter, #HillaryIsSoPoor became a trending hashtag. Meanwhile, Clinton is being chided for lacking the political sophistication (perhaps the first time any Clinton has ever been accused of such a thing) to realize that having temporary cash-flow problems when you’re on the verge of getting rich doesn’t exactly mirror the struggles of the masses.
But stupid answers often arise from stupid questions. And let’s face it, Sawyer’s question, which essentially amounted to “how dare you accept what the market is willing to pay you?,” is, if not exactly stupid, pretty ridiculous.
It’s also indicative of the mythology we’ve created around political figures and money, which is that we expect them to have disposable funds (they can’t get in the game otherwise) but we don’t want to see them actually working for it. We like them to be living off the spoils of successful businesses from which they are partially or fully retired. We like this especially if it was a family business, passed from generation to generation and demanding less time at the office (and therefore more time for public service) with each handoff.
Not that moneyed political families don’t take hits for being out of touch. But as easy as it was to knock the Romneys for missteps in the vein of “Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs,” it’s hard to imagine a news anchor asking a Bush or a Kennedy how he feels about his interest and dividend earnings far exceeding the U.S. median.
And that’s because in some corner of the American imagination, a politician who lives off previously accumulated wealth is more palatable than one who is still in the process of accumulating it. He or she is less hungry, needy, and somehow just safer.
Part of Clinton’s likability problem has always been that she seems too hungry, too driven. At the same time, her struggles (the real ones, not the ones involving finding money for mortgages) are often so close to the surface that her supporters sometimes feel they’re struggling right along with her. And that’s all the more reason for her not to use “struggles” loosely.
So should she have resorted to corporate-style jargon and said she and Bill were “challenged” instead? No, she should have said something along the lines of “my speaking fees are negotiated just like other speakers, and these houses are a consequence of such fees, and that’s the end of the conversation.”
Of course, that’s not the kind of thing people running for office are allowed to say, which suggests that Clinton may have already made some hard choices she just hasn’t announced yet. But it would certainly be refreshing.