Greed and the Presidency
AFTER two terms of sucking it up for the citizens of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee itched to cash in. So he signed on as a pitchman for a bogus diabetes remedy and rented out his mailing list to charlatans peddling Scripture as a cure for cancer.
Chris Christie isn’t paid a king’s ransom. But Jordan’s king has his back. The monarch treated the New Jersey governor and his entourage to a weekend of posh partying in the Middle East, to which they’d flown on a casino magnate’s private plane. It was hardly the only time that Christie had traveled like royalty.
And for Marco Rubio, a Florida legislator’s compensation wasn’t nearly enough. So he cozied up to a billionaire auto dealer who continues to underwrite his existence all these years later, affording him a lifestyle beyond his means as a United States senator. What a smooth move.
And what a familiar one.
As 2016’s diverse cast of aspirants comes into sharper focus, so does a shared story, a common theme. It’s one of avarice, acquisitiveness and a resistance to living within the financial bounds of elected office.
It’s not new to this year’s players, but it’s especially vivid, not least because Hillary Clinton stars in the show. “Dead broke” upon leaving the White House, she and Bill chased not only fat book advances but also morbidly obese speaking fees, under the guise of needing to “pay our bills.”
And so she orated for dollars as long as she could, announcing her candidacy only after she’d collected a final fee estimated at $200,000 from the American Camp Association.
Bill’s still charging by the syllable: Damn the optics and full greed ahead. Last week in Manhattan, he made a presentation to advertisers for the network Univision, which is precisely the kind of outreach that’s optimal for Team Clinton. He accepted payment nonetheless, though the event’s organizers wouldn’t disclose the amount.
It’s a discomfiting spectacle — and a dissonant one. So many of the candidates who raise their hands for “public service,” in their self-congratulating parlance, aren’t at peace with the economic humility that the phrase connotes. For more than a few of them, “public service” is a fig leaf over private cupidity. In many cases, it’s a prelude to a lucrative payday that they’re counting on.
They talk about their connection to “everyday Americans” (Hillary Clinton) and to laborers who “sweat through their clothes” (Huckabee) even as they reach for, and insist on, a much higher style. That’s partly why their words can ring so pat, so hollow. It’s one explanation for voters’ cynicism.
While we in the news media have long wrung our hands about the ways in which campaign financing warps the political process, what about the ways in which politicians’ frenzied competition for donations warps their views of the world? They now spend so much time among the country’s plutocrats, sowing friendship wherever the funds are, that their bearings and their yardsticks surely change, as must their sense of their station.
I’m sure the Clintons don’t feel as fabulously rich as they’ve become — Bill alone made $104.9 million in speaking fees between January 2001 and January 2013 — because they needn’t look more than a few feet in any direction to spot someone with 10 times their net worth. At the pinnacles of power, there are mountains of money, and it’s easy for a politician to wonder why it belongs to people no brighter than he or she is. It’s just as easy to feel entitled to some of it.
Wealth and politics have never been strangers, and some candidates aren’t hustling in real time and taking extravagant gifts only because the salary cap of “public service” is irrelevant to them. Their affluence is the antecedent to their bids for office.
Among the Bushes, it was always said that you made your fortune, thenstaked your political claim. Jeb Bush did a bit of that, and his net worth when he became governor of Florida in 1999 was about $2 million.
It fell to about $1.3 million over the next eight years, immediately after which he exhibited an “unapologetic determination to expand his wealth,” according to Michael Barbaro in The Times, who wrote that even though “the path from public service to private riches is well trodden,” Bush took an unusually “aggressive and expansive approach to making money.” His net worth now isn’t known.
That of another Republican contender, Carly Fiorina, is in the range of $71 million, as Matt Viser of The Boston Globe reported in a recent story that also mentioned the median household net worth in the United States right now: $81,200.
“In an election season expected to be dominated by appeals to blue-collar Americans,” Viser wrote, “the ability of candidates to credibly connect with average voters will be a major challenge.”
Politicians don’t make peanuts. Christie’s salary is $175,000 annually, plus a stipend of $95,000 for job-related entertainment and other perks. The government pays each member of Congress at least $174,000, apart from other benefits.
But that puts them in a lower financial league than people of analogous accomplishment in certain other professions, and the disparity clearly gnaws at some of them. It devoured Aaron Schock, an Illinois Republican whose runaway spending and shady bookkeeping forced him to resign from the House of Representatives earlier this year.
Is he just an exaggerated mirror of what we’re seeing in presidential candidates? There’s a striking leitmotif of lust for the luxe life in the recent news coverage of many of them. Stories about Huckabee expose a man whose hand was out even when he was the Arkansas governor. He exited office with an evident agenda of enrichment.
A portrait of Christie written by Barbaro and Kate Zernike and a subsequent profile of Rubio by Barbaro and Steve Eder revealed similarities: Both politicians’ material appetites exceed their allowances.
And each has found a solution for that in the kindness of patrons.
There’s a big, obvious problem with that apart from the skewing of their perspectives, just as there is with some of the Clintons’ income and fund-raising for their foundation. Whom do these politicians wind up owing, and how are they making good on those debts? Whatever their measure of greed, is it a gateway to corruption?
Funnily, Scott Walker made news recently because he’s an island of relative penury in these opulent seas. His parents live with him. He is saddled with car and tuition payments. He owes money on a credit card from Sears.
And his overall net worth is a negative $72,500.
While a few critics cited this as proof of fiscal irresponsibility, it made me feel a little warm and fuzzy about him — for the first time. Come to lunch in the Times cafeteria, Governor Walker. The chicken salad sandwich is on me.
Allan Nichols 10:59 PM EST
Still doubt this a rigged one party system where we have a group of drunken anti depressant addicted fools who argue with each other on TV during the day then hit the cocktail lounge together in the PM to laugh at how stupid the American voter is particularly the ones who actually believe the BS which comes from their lips. The kind of people who actually believe the Democrats are actually “for the little guy” and against the “1%” yet Democrats in DC are owned by the largest corporations in the World like Microsoft, Google and General Electric. Democrats like President Obama don’t hang out with farmers or bricklayers no sir. They dine with the %1 of Hollywood and the Silicone Valley. The same kind of people who believe the Republicans when they say they are for small government, small business and liberty. Then they expand the government, cripple small business with laws like SOX and then steal our liberty by building up a police state in the name of protecting us.