We are constantly reminded of the fact that there’s no better gig in the world than being an ex-president. With lucrative book contracts (for books that don’t always get read but for which publishers feel obligated to shell out big bucks in advances), highly paid speaking engagements and uncounted perks as well as lifetime security, our former commanders-in-chief live the rest of their lives high on the proverbial hog. And when they’re done repairing their personal finances, they can start foundations and shake down everyone who wants their ear or to link their names with a former president. That’s pretty much the story of the last 12 years of Bill Clinton’s life, as he has become a wealthy man as well as one with a personal foundation to which he can funnel almost unlimited amounts of contributions from those who wish to earn his good will or that of his wife, who has her own eye on the White House in 2016.
But there is a point when even the usual post-presidential gravy train becomes excess and it appears that Clinton has reached just such a moment. By accepting a $500,000 honorarium from the Shimon Peres Academic Center, Clinton has exposed himself and his hosts (which include the Jewish National Fund, which is co-sponsoring the event as part of its president’s summit in Israel this summer) to scorn and criticism. Clinton apparently demanded that the Center and the JNF pony up a cool half million and deliver it to his foundation a year in advance to secure his appearance at an event honoring the Israeli president’s 90th birthday. This raises questions not only of good taste but also of the propriety of one charitable endeavor profiting at the expense of the other.
The Center and the JNF attempted to recoup some of the money by charging those who attended the gala to take place on June 17 in Reshoot, Israel approximately $800 a head. But Peres was scandalized by the idea of asking so much from those coming to his birthday party and the Times of Israel reports he said he wouldn’t attend if it was nothing but a fundraiser.
Of course, it is almost certain that the half million was not taken out of the money Jews around the world donate to the JNF to plant trees or otherwise help the environment in Israel. A major donor probably pledged the money Clinton demands for the pleasure of his company and writes it off as a charitable deduction. The assumption is that Clinton’s name will be enough to draw in enough paying customers to the event to make it worth the charity’s while. But Peres’s embarrassment at the egregious nature of the former president’s fee has obviously made it difficult for the JNF and the Center since they must absorb the costs of the evening.
Nevertheless, there is something unseemly about Clinton, who will receive the President’s Award from Peres at an event scheduled for two days later where Tony Blair and Mikhail Gorbachev will also show up (their fees have not been made public), shaking down the JNF and its donor base for this kind of money for his personal charity. As New York Magazine noted, that amounts to $11,111.00 per minute.
Clinton may escape the kind of opprobrium that Ronald Reagan received when he received large fees for speeches in the first years after his presidency ended (and before Alzheimer’s Disease claimed him) because the money he gets will go to his foundation. But any claim that the Clinton family’s political brand doesn’t benefit from the foundation’s work is completely disingenuous. If Clinton wants to honor his old friend Peres, it shouldn’t require someone who cares about the Peres Center or the JNF to fork over that kind of money to a cause that, for all of its good work, is a vanity project for a former president who would like very much to be the nation’s First Gentleman three years from now.
Throughout his post-presidency, Clinton has engaged in this kind of money making taking six-figure fees from all sorts of charities and even churches and synagogues without coming in for much criticism. We seem to take it as a given that former presidents are not only entitled to have the nation build them pyramid-like monuments in the form of libraries and museums, but also to rake in cash in a manner that previous generations would have considered beneath the dignity of a president. Given that these fees are donated by rich people who are happy to pay for the honor of hobnobbing with Clinton for an hour or two, perhaps we should consider this a question of public relations rather than ethics. But it can also be observed that once again the 42nd president has found another way to diminish the high office with which he was entrusted.