President Harry Truman once said that he would never lend himself “to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency.” His successors have not held themselves to the same standard.
Ronald Reagan had a lucrative post-White House career trading on his presidential experience. So did George H.W. Bush. But George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have achieved new lows. Clinton has received more than $100 million just in speaking fees. He charged $500,000 to appear at a 2014 fundraiser for tsunami relief (which he donated to his own foundation), while Bush (who initiated the Iraq war) charged the veterans’ charity Wounded Warriors $100,000, along with transportation by private jet, to speak at a 2012 event.
Since we have no uniform reporting standard on the activities of former presidents, we don’t even know the full extent of these payments, their sources and what they are intended to accomplish. With the spirit of Truman long gone, it’s time for Congress to impose some restrictions.
It’s not as if former presidents would risk poverty if they avoided the lecture circuit. By law, each ex-president receives a pension of about $200,000 a year, Secret Service protection, and support (currently about $1 million a year) to pay for maintaining a personal office and staff. Book publishers also pay former presidents exceedingly well for their memoirs (advances are now routinely in the seven figures).
Accepting cash from a charity may seem harmless enough. Charities pay former presidents to appear at events because their presence adds cachet and boosts ticket sales. Even after speaking fees, the charities clear a profit. But there’s a risk that donors will — quite wrongly — believe the former president is personally involved in the charity when, in fact, he’s just a gun for hire. And shilling, even for a good cause, isn’t exactly presidential — at least not in the old sense of that word.
Additional concerns arise from paid speeches in countries whose values (on human rights, free speech, etc.) are very different from our own, and where a former president’s appearance may be spun as American support for despicable policies. George W. Bush and Clinton have accepted money to speak in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, China and Russia.
These two former presidents have also rented their prestige to a long list of private, moneymaking entities — Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, Cayman Island Alternative Investment Conference and Union Bank of Switzerland — with an obvious interest in influencing federal regulatory policy.
UBS is a particularly troubling example because it has had so much trouble with the law.
Over the last two decades, it’s paid billions in fines, admitted criminal guilt under deferred prosecution agreements and/or settled charges for numerous violations. These include the following multiyear conspiracies (the dates reflect when UBS admitted guilt and/or paid fines to settle charges): In 1998, the theft of assets belonging to Holocaust victims; in 2004, illegally transferring funds to countries under U.S. trade embargo; in 2009, operating schemes to help U.S. citizens illegally avoid payment of income tax; in 2011, rigging the U.S. municipal bond market; in 2012, rigging the LIBOR interest rate market; in 2014, defrauding the Federal Housing Agency; and most recently, in 2015, rigging foreign exchange markets.
This dubious organization employed George W. Bush and Clinton at a series of events from 2011 through 2015, and paid them well for their services — about $100,000 to $200,000 for each appearance. It’s not difficult to imagine UBS telling clients: If two former presidents are willing to work with us and be prominently listed on our website, with a company logo next to their pictures, why should anyone question our integrity?
When a former president appears at an event, that sends a message to prosecutors, regulators and the State Department. The message: The sponsoring organization, country or person has friends in high places, and ought to be treated very carefully.
The United States has laws, however imperfect, restricting what civil servants and members of Congress can do after leaving office. Former senior civil servants, for instance, are subject to a one-year prohibition on working in any capacity for a foreign government, if their intent is to influence a U.S. department or agency. And federal law bars former senators from communicating with their former colleagues for two years after leaving office, if their intent is to influence official actions. Violations are a criminal offense.
Why not rein in former presidents too, possibly by making their pensions and other benefits contingent on good behavior?
Former presidents shouldn’t be allowed to accept payments from any foreign country whatsoever, or from any company under criminal investigation or with a guilty plea (or settlement) for criminal charges. They should also publicly report all donations and fees received from all sources (including charities). Disclosure of these transactions should help police the process.
At any rate, something has to change; the current situation is a national embarrassment.
Steven Strauss is a visiting professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He has advised senior public sector leaders in Europe, the Middle East and the United States.