Column: How the White House became a path to obscene riches for ex-presidents

Ex-presidents George H.W. Bush, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office
Why are these men smiling?
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press )
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Does it come as any surprise that Donald Trump is squeezing every possible penny out of his post-presidency, holding $30,000-a-head fundraisers and pocketing the money, performing for arena crowds with Bill O’Reilly at $100 a ticket, selling $50 MAGA hats and $95 Mar-a-Lago Christmas ornaments at his Trump merchandise store? It’s just what you’d expect from a huckster billionaire who’s always on the make.

But let’s keep his behavior in perspective.

Long before Trump showed up at the White House, the presidency had become a stepping stone to enormous, beyond-the-pale riches. Although some of us suckers still think of the commander-in-chief’s job as lonely, burdensome public service undertaken selflessly for the good of the country, the reality is that there’s not much self-sacrifice involved, at least not financially.

In fact, there’s a lot of money to be made.

Opinion Columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg served 11 years as editor of the editorial page and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and Sunday Opinion section.

Of course, presidents have come from the ranks of the rich for as long as there’s been a United States. George Washington, with 50,000 acres of property, a 500-acre plantation at Mount Vernon, hundreds of enslaved people and a 21-room mansion, was one of the wealthiest Americans of his day.


And for those without such advantages, there have been plenty of opportunities to cash in after the fact: Ulysses S. Grant wrote a bestselling memoir to raise money late in life. Gerald Ford was among the first to take fees for speeches after leaving office. Harry Truman, long admired for his ordinary-retired-dude-on-Medicare persona, is now alleged to have lied about his finances to squeeze more money out of the government.

Hey, everybody’s got to pay the bills!

But in recent years, it’s gotten out of hand. The post-presidential payoff has grown obscenely large.

Bill Clinton, for instance, took $500,000 for a single speech from a Moscow bank with close ties to the Kremlin. In all, Bill and Hillary Clinton reportedly earned — and I use that word loosely — $153 million in speaking fees between 2001 and 2015. If you add books, consulting fees and the like, they raked in $240 million during those years, according to a separate analysis by Forbes.

Are we really going to let the unappealing business term “high net worth individuals” replace “rich”? I hope not.

Jan. 31, 2022

The Obamas are doing pretty well too. Barack Obama received $400,000 for a speech to the financial services firm Cantor Fitzergald just months after leaving office. That’s more than six times the annual American median household income for, at most, a few hours work. God knows how many speeches like that he gives each year.

And he and Michelle reportedly received a $65 million advance for a two-book deal with Penguin Random House.

Obama talks about trying to keep it real. “There’s only so much you can eat. There’s only so big a house you can have. There’s only so many nice trips you can take. I mean, it’s enough,” he said in 2018.


A year later he bought his 6,892-square-foot Martha’s Vineyard house on a 29-acre estate for $12 million. It’s a getaway from his $8 million, nine-bedroom house in Washington, and it’s where he was to have had a lavish 60th birthday party last year with George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey, Beyoncé and Jay-Z and some 450 others, before it was scaled back due to COVID-19.

George W. Bush summed up the post-presidential life as he was leaving office when he told an interviewer that his plan for the future was to “replenish the ol’ coffers,” noting that he could make “ridiculous” money on the lecture circuit. And he has.

And, some might ask, why not? This is America, land of opportunity! Why begrudge our former presidents their riches? Why shouldn’t they yacht around with David Geffen in Tahiti or jet around in Ron Burkle’s plane. They have no obligation to eschew material things and devote themselves like Mother Teresa to the poor.

Besides, people seem to want to buy their books and hear their speeches.

So what is the problem?

Well, for me there’s an element of jealousy, of course. I don’t deny that.

We may think any of us can become the next Bezos or Musk. But in fact, social mobility is not really a thing in America anymore. Income inequality is.

Nov. 12, 2021

There’s also the fact that we the taxpayers are paying the five living ex-presidents more than $200,000 a year in pensions for the rest of their lives, plus footing the bill for their office space, a million bucks in travel expenses and lifetime Secret Service protection, among other benefits. Why exactly do we do that?

And the source of the money they’re earning raises questions. Why are Moscow banks and firms such as Cantor Fitzgerald and assorted zillionaire tycoons (including Jeffrey Epstein) willing to purchase a presidential association at such exorbitant prices? What’s in it for them?

The bottom line, though, is I feel betrayed. I’m bothered by the commercialization and exploitation of the presidency. By the screwy incentives that now exist to run for the office. By the conspicuous excess of our ex-presidents’ lives, which sends a depressing message in an era of stark poverty and grotesque income inequality.


The billionaires who funded Trump’s politics got their money’s worth.

Jan. 15, 2021

In 2006, Obama wrote this:

“As a consequence of my [campaign] fundraising I became more like the wealthy donors I met, in the very particular sense that I spent more and more of my time above the fray, outside the world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality and frequent hardship of the other 99% of the population — that is, the people I’d entered public life to serve.”

I still admire Obama enormously but in the end, it’s Jimmy Carter who, to all appearances, deserves our praise.

He built all those houses for the poor, wrote poetry and published dozens of books and monitored elections in troubled countries. He’s made a good deal of money, to be sure, but he lives in a modest house, carried his own suitcases when he traveled and taught Sunday school (presumably for less than $400,000 an hour).

Keeping it real is not easy when the temptations abound and the money is being thrown at you. But when it comes to ex-presidents, the world is watching.