Voices from Russia

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Barack Obama is Using His Presidency to Cash In, But Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter Refused to Do So

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Defenders of Barack Obama’s decision to do things like accept a 400,000 USD (22.8 million Roubles. 2.76 million Renminbi. 25.68 million INR. 548,000 CAD. 532,000 AUD. 368,000 Euros. 312,000 UK Pounds) check for a speech to a Wall Street brokerage house argue that the former president might as well cash in… everyone else does. That was Daily Show host Trevor Noah’s defence of Obama:

People are like, “Why doesn’t he not accept the money?” No, fuck that. So the first black president must also be the first one to not take money afterwards? No, no, no, my friend. He can’t be the first of everything! Fuck that, and fuck you. Make that money, Obama!

This argument, while common, comes from historical ignorance. It assumes that presidents have always found a way to leverage their political connections post-presidency to make money from interest groups and wealthy political actors. However, that isn’t the case. It used to be the norm for presidents to retire to ordinary life after their stint in the White House… just ask Harry Truman. When the Democratic president was getting ready to leave the White House in 1953, many employers approached him. The Los Angeles Times noted:

If he’s unemployed after he leaves the White House it won’t be for lack of job offers … but [he’s] accepted none of them.

One of those job offers was from a Florida real estate developer, asking him to become a “chairman, officer, or stockholder, at a figure of not less than 100,000 USD”… the sort of position that’s commonplace today for ex-politicians. Presumably, had Truman taken the position, it would’ve been a good deal for both parties… the president’s prestige and connections would also enrich the company. Truman declined. He wrote of his refusal to influence-peddle:

I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialise on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency.

Although he had a small pension from his military service, Truman had little financial support after leaving office. He moved back into his family home in Independence MO. He insisted on being treated like anyone else. He’d tell people not to call him, “Mr President”, and settled into an ordinary routine once he was back in Independence. He’d take a morning walk through the town square. He kept an office nearby where he would answer mail from Americans. He chose to engage with just about anyone who walked into his office… not only people who wrote him big checks or invited him onto their private yachts and private islands. He once said:

Many people feel that a president or an ex-president is partly theirs… they’re right to some extent… and that they have a right to call upon him.

Indeed, his office number was in a nearby telephone directory. He eventually agreed to write a memoir for Life magazine, but it was a lengthy project, which paid a far-from-luxurious stipend. Truman’s modest life post-presidency moved Congress in 1958 to establish a pension that provides an annual cash payout as well as expenses for an office and staff.

Nevertheless, Gerald Ford shattered precedent when he joined the boards of corporations such as 20th Century Fox, hit the paid speech circuit, and became an honorary director of Citigroup. However, his successor, Jimmy Carter, who grew up in a modest home in Plains GA, didn’t follow Ford’s example. He refused to become a professional paid speaker or join corporate boards. He moved back to Plains and a crowd of neighbours and supporters welcomed him home. He quickly made himself busy as a nonprofit founder and a volunteer diplomat. He did make money post-presidency…but by serving ordinary people, not the élite. He wrote dozens of best-selling books bought by millions of people across the world… the post-presidency equivalent of small donors. Carter explained his thinking to the Guardian in 2011, telling them:

My favourite president and the one I admired most was Harry Truman. When Truman left office, he took the same position. He didn’t serve on corporate boards. He didn’t make speeches around the world for a lot of money.

The presidents who came after did not choose the same path. At a time when Japan was a major trade rival with the United States, Ronald Reagan flew to Japan for a series of paid speeches after he left office. He accepted 2 million USD (114 million Roubles. 13.8 million Renminbi. 128.4 million INR. 2.74 million CAD. 2.66 million AUD. 1.84 million Euros. 1.56 million UK Pounds) for a pair of 20-minute speeches to the Fujisankei Communications Group. An additional 5 million USD (285 million Roubles. 34.5 million Renminbi. 321 million INR. 6.85 million CAD. 6.65 million AUD. 4.6 million Euros. 3.9 million UK Pounds) went for expenses related to the visit. Both Bushes also joined the paid speech circuit, and the Clintons made over 100 million USD (5.7 billion Roubles. 690 million Renminbi. 6.42 billion INR. 137 million CAD. 133 million AUD. 92 million Euros. 78 million UK Pounds) from banks and other corporations, shortly after the Clinton presidency deregulated Wall Street. Bill Clinton lamented to a student group in 2009:

I never made any money until I left the White House. I had the lowest net worth, adjusted for inflation, of any president elected in the last 100 years, including President Obama. I was one poor rascal when I took office; but after I got out, I made a lot of money.

Obama was hardly facing poverty. He already has a 65 million USD book deal (3.705 billion Roubles. 448.5 million Renminbi. 4.173 billion INR. 89.05 million CAD. 86.45 million AUD. 59.8 million Euros. 50.7 million UK Pounds) and that 200,000 USD annual pension (11.4 million Roubles. 1.38 million Renminbi. 12.84 million INR. 274,000 CAD. 266,000 AUD. 184,000 Euros. 156,000 UK Pounds). By joining the paid speech circuit… his spokesman Eric Schultz told the press that paid speechmaking will be a fixture for the former president… Obama was making a conscious choice. Obama could have been like Truman or Carter, but instead chose to be like Bush and Clinton.

1 May 2017

Zaid Jilani

The Intercept

https://theintercept.com/2017/05/01/barack-obama-is-using-his-presidency-to-cash-in-but-harry-truman-and-jimmy-carter-refused/

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