Bill and Hillary Clinton were barely out of kindergarten in 1953 when Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters recorded what could be the former first couple's theme song, “Money Honey,” with the refrain, "You gotta have money, honey, if you want to get along with me."
Money is clearly honey to the Clintons, and they have been busy as bees collecting it in speech income and gifts to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Foundation. To put some numbers on it:
Since 2001, according to The New York Times, the Clintons have earned $125 million in speaking fees. The Washington Post says the Clinton Foundation has raised "close to $2 billion from a vast global network that includes corporate titans, political donors, foreign governments, and other wealthy interests," including $262 million in 2013 alone, the year after Hillary stepped down as Secretary of State and began running for president. That money seems to be piling up. Between 2008 and 2013 the foundation gave away less than $90 million of the more than $640 million it collected.
During most of this time, Bill Clinton has been the chief breadwinner for the family and the foundation because Mrs. Clinton was in public office as a senator and Secretary of State until the end of 2012. But Hillary began giving speeches for pay in 2014, and the family's combined speech income for 2014 and the first four months of 2015 was $25 million. Not bad.
That's on top of Bill Clinton's federal pension and office allowance of nearly $1 million a year, and the millions earned by Hillary's books.
Impressive as these numbers are, others earn more. Top CEOs routinely make more than the annual average Clinton family speech income of $7.5 million since Bill left office. The New York Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez is paid $27.5 million a year. Madonna earned $125 million in just one 12-month period from 2012 to 2013, according to Forbes Magazine, which says that over a similar period a year later Justin Timberlake took in $80 million.
A-Rod and Madonna are selling skill and entertainment. It is not so clear what the Clintons are selling, but there are some hints. Clearly it is not performance tickets, records, or commercial endorsements. Their money, and their foundation's money, does not come from millions of individual fans making small purchases, but from a small universe of governments, big-time corporations, and individuals.
The Clintons may be charming, but their audiences have heard their messages many times in the past 14 years. What the corporate chiefs, political donors, and others who pay their very high speaking fees appear to want, above all, is access.
The New York Times has documented how Bill Clinton's ability to open doors helped Canadian investors reap a fortune when he eased their access to decision-makers in Kazakhstan, who approved their purchase of uranium mining assets, to which they later added U.S. uranium assets. They sold all this to a state-owned Russian energy company, giving it a near monopoly on uranium. Said the Times, "The investors gave millions to the Clinton Foundation over the same period, while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s office was involved with approving the Russian bid."
There is no apparent smoking gun here. But there is a pattern. For instance, when Hillary was Secretary of State, Bill's speech income rose, as did the fees he was collecting. Figures compiled by The Washington Post show that from 2001 to 2008, Bill gave 11 speeches for which he charged $300,000 or more. During the next four years, when Hillary was Secretary of State, the number of his speeches paying $300,000 or more rose to 28, and Bill's top fee approximately doubled to over $750,000 for a single speech.
The Wall Street Journal reported this year that “at least 60 companies that lobbied the State Department during [Hillary Clinton’s] tenure donated a total of more than $26 million to the Clinton Foundation.”
Maybe those with enough income to afford purchasing access to Bill and Hillary are seeking nothing in return. But the appearance is otherwise. As Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig put it in a recent Washington Post article, "quid pro quo" is not the only form of corruption. "Corruption is not just a contract," he wrote. "Corruption is also a kind of economy -- an economy of influence that leads any sane soul to the fair belief that private influence has affected public policy."
There is also nothing new here. Many politicians in the nation's history have been engaged in some form of "pay to play" in which money buys access. But few have done it with such apparent brazen gusto as Mr. and Mrs. Clinton. Voters nevertheless have seemed to tolerate their well-reported history of raising money in curious ways. Who can forget the "For Rent" sign they implicitly put on the Lincoln Bedroom when they occupied the White House, or their firing of the White House travel staff so they could bring in some Arkansas buddies? Or what they presented as Mrs. Clinton's amazingly deft hand in trading cattle futures, when it was common knowledge in Little Rock that it was just Don Tyson's way of putting a little cash in their hands?
That is what makes Mrs. Clinton's advocacy of strict campaign spending controls rather amusing. Some have unfairly accused her of hypocrisy for denouncing current campaign spending law while speaking to wealthy donors in California and accepting help from Super PACs that can be used to hide the sources of campaign funds. Her Republican opponents are using the same tools.
But when she says, with a straight face, that she opposes "unaccountable money" in politics, there should be a word for that: Hillarious.