Former Secretary of State, Senator, first lady (and potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton may currently be “unemployed,” but that doesn't mean she isn't raking in big bucks. Following a long tradition of ex-lawmakers, Clinton earns hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of dollars annually by the simple act of delivering speeches in front of adoring audiences across the nation and the world. As a high-profile global figure and a potentially history-making first female president of the U.S., Clinton commands handsome fees on the speaker circuit.
The Washington Post reported that she has received as much as $200,000 for lecturing a group of real estate developers in Dallas, adding another lucrative check from a crowd of deep-pocketed private equity managers in Los Angeles. The New York Times (usually a big supporter of liberal Democrats) slammed Hilary not only for taking big money for her speaking engagements but also for the lame quality of her canned deliveries. “For about $200,000, Mrs. Clinton will offer pithy reflections and Mitch Albom-style lessons from her time as the nation’s top diplomat,” the Times scoffed, adding examples of her bon mots: “leadership is a team sport,” “you can’t win if you don’t show up,” and the immortal “a whisper can be louder than a shout.”
But Hillary Clinton is a minor-leaguer compared to her husband – ex-President Bill Clinton has received as much as $750,000 for one speech (before an audience of executives and employees of telecom firm Ericsson [NASDAQ:ERIC] in Hong Kong) and has raked in at least $89 million (and perhaps more than $100 million) from similar appearances around the world since he left the White House 12 years ago. The New York Daily News recently reported that Clinton snagged a cool half-a-million dollars for a 45-minute speech at a 90th birthday party for Israeli President Shimon Peres. That comes out to about $11,000 per minute – a princely sum paid out by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, the Jewish National Fund in Israel.
In addition, a newspaper publishing firm in impoverished Nigeria even coughed up $700,000 for the privilege of listening to the former president’s dulcet tones. Moreover, Clinton pocketed $550,000 for a speech given at a business conference in Shanghai. To be fair, it is unclear how much of this cash goes directly into his hands – since some of these earnings are transferred to his William J. Clinton Foundation and are subject to complex tax and income-reporting rules and laws.
It is important to remember that ex-politicians who earn money from speeches are not violating any laws – although questions of ethics and integrity may abound. In addition, post-career politicians making speeches is nothing new – what has changed is the amount of money being paid out, and their relative lack of scruples about whom they accept fees from, said Dr. Lance Strate, professor of communication and media studies and associate chair for graduate studies at Fordham University in New York, in an interview. “Many believe that stricter regulation is needed to rein in such activities, and there is no question that the potential for conflict of interest exists,” said Strate.
In any case, CNN reported that Bill Clinton averages about $189,000 per speech – somewhat less than his annual salary as president in the 1990s. In 2011 alone, the 42nd president took home about $13.4 million from 54 speeches (averaging out to almost a quarter-million dollars per event). His earning capacity has been escalating ever upwards – he made $10.7 million in 2010, and $7.5 million in 2009. The magnitude of Clinton’s enormous wealth came to light only because his wife’s status as a federal official required her to disclose her family's income statements.
Bill Clinton himself addressed his sudden newfound riches. "I never had any money until I got out of the White House, you know, but I've done reasonably well since then," he said in 2010 during a forum in Cape Town, South Africa. “Reasonably well” means tens of millions of dollars in earnings (and counting).
A Canadian-based communication executive defended Clinton’s huge income. "The work [Clinton] does around the world has given him a very unique perspective. Not just a former president's perspective, but also the very unique perspective from his philanthropic work," Norman Stowe, who arranged an economic conference with both Clinton and his successor George W. Bush, told CNN. "[Clinton is] really a gifted speaker. He speaks in a language that everyone can understand."
Even political luminaries who failed in their presidential bids ride this very green gravy train for all it’s worth. Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, who ascended to global fame in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, attracts fees of up to $270,000 per speech. In 2007, during his failed run for the Republican presidential nomination, Giuliani revealed that he had earned $9.2 million over the past 13 months in speaking fees alone, or about $700,000 per month. Former Vice President Al Gore has also maintained an extremely busy and profitable “retirement” from politics. Among his many endeavors, the ultra-environmentalist makes as much as $156,000 per speaking engagement.
Former President George W. Bush is no slouch either. Generating as much as $110,000 per talk, Bush has reeled in at least $15 million from making speeches since he left office, according to the Center for Public Integrity. In some instances, Clinton and Bush – despite their different politics – have even made joint appearances, including dual speeches in New York before the wealth management subsidiary of Swiss bank UBS (NYSE: UBS).
CPI reported that most of Bush's speeches are closed to the media -- as such, he has been criticized for undertaking such projects. “I find it puzzling,” Stanford University presidential historian Robert Dallek told iWatch News. “[Bush] says he wants to keep a low profile. What is he doing except enriching himself? It sounds like it’s self-serving. It’s following the good old American adage to make as much as you can.”
Another presidential historian, Julian Zelizer at Princeton University, also blasted Bush. “It’s one thing to stay out of the public realm, which George Bush has said he wants to do,” he said. “But then he goes on the speaking circuit and makes enormous amounts of money giving lectures mostly to corporate groups and other select audiences. Some Americans can find this distasteful.” Zelizer added that the mixture of political influence and big money presents some dangers. “We’re in an era where there are countless fears about money and politics,” he said. “I think former presidents have to be careful about what they’re doing with their speeches. For some people it’s another version of the revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street," the hive of Washington's lobbyists.
As you go down the hierarchy of former political bigwigs, you will find even more people eager to make speeches with their hands out – although the income they demand is typically proportional to how much power and influence they once enjoyed.
Bush's former second-in-command, Dick Cheney – who, ironically, was once represented by the same speakers’ agency as his predecessor, Gore – gets $75,000 a pop, according to Politico. Other former big-time politicians, including billionaire (and failed Republican presidential candidate) Mitt Romney and his ideological opposite, Democrat Howard Dean, also score big bucks on the speakers circuit. Even a relative nobody like former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has made $2 million from speeches since he quit Barack Obama's administration in 2011.
But why would anyone pay such huge amounts of money for what is typically a canned speech written by others? Strate explained that a variety of institutions and organizations, both foreign and domestic, are willing and able to pay the very high speaking fees of leading American politicians and former officeholders. “For some, there is the basic interest in being associated with a celebrity, the prestige that comes with the presence and participation of a famous and influential individual,” Strate said. “This is the case for universities, for example.”
For other groups, those with political or commercial agendas, or those outside of the United States, the mere presence of a well-known political leader amounts to a tacit endorsement of the organization or nation, a sign of approval, Strate added. “And while there may not be any quid pro quo, there is a certain reciprocity that may be gained when a political figure is paid a large amount of money for giving a talk,” he noted.
Certain ethics rules bar officeholders in various parts of government from accepting speaking fees, but nothing prevents them becoming walking cash registers after they return to private life. Bill Clinton, despite his various personal deficiencies and scandals, remains a highly popular and admired global figure – thus, many corporations and other organizations eagerly seek him out. Strate suggests that any links to Clinton might impart to organizations “some benefit from connections that are made” as well as gaining the ability “to make other connections through introductions -- this is the ultimate in networking.”
Another attraction of inviting former presidents to speak at major events is that the people who pay premiums, say, via sponsorship, get VIP access to the former politicians. “And that offers a range of mutually beneficial opportunities where both parties make contacts to advance their agendas,” said Jamie Chandler, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York.
With respect to Hillary Clinton, she must make a sharp separation between personal income drawn from making speeches and funds raised for her (likely) 2016 presidential run. “Wealthy candidates may use their personal finances for their campaigns, but right now Hilary is campaigning without actually being a candidate, while separate exploratory committees would be doing the fund-raising,” Strate explained. Chandler further noted that for potential 2016 candidates like Hillary Clinton and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, speaking events build their name recognition even higher and also help connect them to big donors.
However, in the event Clinton takes money from lobbyists during her time as a "private citizen" – and then enters the White House in 2017, questions could be raised if she subsequently were to push for any legislation favorable to said lobby groups.
Dr. Jeanne Zaino, professor of political science at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., noted that there have been cases in which former officials have gone on to earn lucrative speaking fees only to find later that such activities posed difficulties when they hoped to re-enter public life. Case in point – in 2009 it was reported Obama’s choice for secretary of health and human services was former Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. But Daschle eventually withdrew his name from consideration as a result of controversy regarding his payment of taxes. “But in the context of that appointment it was also revealed that he had received almost $400,000 in speaking fees from health-related groups,” Zaino stated. “The revelation raised questions regarding a potential conflict of interest for someone who might be in charge of the president’s efforts regarding health care reform.”
Meanwhile, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both of whom are 67, have many years left to keep fattening their already overstuffed bank accounts – not only from making speeches, but from a pension, income from consulting, book deals, being associated with a law firm, corporation, or university, and in many other ways, Strate noted.
Barack Obama presents an interesting case – wildly popular with a segment of the U.S. (and foreign) population, the first non-white U.S. president has already ascended to the lofty status of super-celebrity and historical figure. Thus, potentially, he could earn untold millions from speaking fees for the next two or three decades. But Strate doesn't think Obama will embark on that route to guaranteed riches. “Given his own self-consciousness about his place in history, and what he means to so many people, he may show more restraint than others have, and that may limit his earnings,” Strate proposed.
But Chandler thinks Obama could potentially break the bank after he departs the Oval Office. “I expect given the historical nature of his elections, many will clamor for his appearances,” he said. “But ultimately this depends on how much speaking [Obama] wants to do. George W. Bush, for example, is not as active as Clinton in this area because he chose to take a lower profile in his post-presidency."
Speaking of past presidents, Chandler explained that Harry Truman gave speeches after his term in office, but he did not accept money for such efforts. “He wouldn’t endorse any products or accept positions on boards,” Chandler noted. “He did take fees for consulting, but not lobbying.”
The interesting thing is that Truman left office without the benefit of the lucrative pensions that current former presidents pull in, Chandler added. Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the Past Presidents Act in 1958, which established the presidential pensions system. Eisenhower himself made some money from speaking fees, and he also spoke at major political events, including the 1964 Republican National Convention.
What remains clear is that big-name politicians will continue to draw huge fees from speaking engagements.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.