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Jewish World Review Feb. 15, 2001 / 22 Shevat, 5761

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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Cashing in on the presidency -- I'M telling you nothing you don't already know when I remark that Bill Clinton has gotten his post-presidency off to a rotten start.

His last-minute pardons reeked of corruption. The limelight-hogging on inauguration day was shameless. Loading the moving van with White House furniture and silver was so Clinton -- sticky-fingered and vulgar. Hillary's bald solicitation for gifts, not to mention her $8 million book advance, had Republicans and Democrats alike doubting her ethical judgment.

And the ex-president's choice of office space in a super-swanky Manhattan building -- at $800,000 a year -- was so greedy that members of Congress were enraged. That affront, at least, Clinton corrected: He backed out of the midtown deal and set his sights instead on an office in Harlem. It is a move rich in symbolic uplift, good news for a neighborhood with a bad reputation. It can't hurt US race relations when one of the best-known white men on earth sets up shop in the nation's most storied black community.

Movin' on up to Harlem is the first thing Clinton has done since January 20 that doesn't smack of avarice or vainglory. If he had done it the day he left the White House, he would have drawn a standing ovation -- and deserved it. Doing it to stanch weeks of withering criticism is rather less admirable.

No other president ever acted so disgracefully upon returning to private life. Clinton has become so unappetizing that Morgan Stanley, the Wall Street investment firm that paid as much as $150,000 to host the former president's first post-White House speech, apologized three days later for doing so. "We clearly made a mistake," wrote the company's chairman, Philip Purcell, in an e-mail to investors. "We should have been far more sensitive to the strong feelings of our clients over Mr. Clinton's personal behavior as president. We should have thought twice before the speaking invitation was extended. Our failure to do so was particularly unfortunate in light of Mr. Clinton's actions in leaving the White House."

Unfortunately, Morgan Stanley's regrets aren't likely to stem the flow of lucrative speaking offers to Clinton. Even more unfortunately, Clinton seems intent on grasping every $100,000 check thrust his way.

This money-grubbing is unseemly. It demeans the presidency. After all, it isn't Clinton's ideas that the groups waving wads of cash at him are so eager to buy. It is his cachet as a former occupant of the Oval Office that they crave -- and the chance to leverage that prestige into more money for themselves. The president of Salem State College in Massachusetts, where Clinton will speak -- for another $100,000 -- on March 26, makes no bones about it. "This is an extraordinary opportunity," Nancy Harrington said by way of justifying the gigantic fee, "for Salem State to friend-raise and fund-raise."

To be fair, the 42nd president isn't doing anything the 41st, 40th, and 38th presidents haven't done too. It was Gerald Ford who began this lamentable practice of cashing in on the presidency. After leaving office, he pursued appearance money with an aggressiveness he rarely showed as president. By joining a multitude of corporate boards and signing no-heavy-lifting "consulting" contracts, he turned himself into a multimillionaire. His precedent is one most of his successors have been glad to follow.

Ronald Reagan took $2 million from a Japanese firm in exchange for giving a couple of speeches. At least he only did it once. George Bush has accepted scores of speaking engagements at $80,000 and up. He isn't very fussy about whose money he takes. For example, he has often spoken to the Women's Federation on World Peace, an outfit founded by the wife of Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church.

Former presidents didn't always exploit their status in this way. When he left the White House in 1953, Harry Truman received highly lucrative offers and declined them all. "His name was not for sale," historian David McCullough wrote. "He would take no fees for commercial endorsements or for lobbying or writing letters or making phone calls. He would accept no 'consulting fees,' nor any gifts that might appear as a product endorsement on his part. Offered a new Toyota ... as a demonstration of improved good feelings between Japan and America, he flatly refused."

Clinton could choose an equally principled course. Refusing to make appearances or give speeches for personal enrichment would go a long way toward repairing his tattered ethical reputation. It can be done. America's most admired former president accepts no speaking fees, sits on no corporate boards, and turns down every invitation to trade on his former position for private gain. He wasn't a very good president, but Jimmy Carter is far and away the best ex-president of our time. His impressive post-presidency is the one Clinton should be studying. It deserves a column of its own.

Stay tuned ...

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment on this column by clicking here.

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