The real scandal is not that the former president and first lady are so wealthy, but how they got that wealthy.
“Is Hillary our Mitt Romney?”asked MSNBC’s Krystal Ball in a recent segment of her TV show. Ball’s statement came on the heels of several comments by Clinton that made her seem completely out of touch with ordinary Americans — that she is not “ truly well off,” that she and her husband were compelled to give speeches for six figures apiece because they were “ dead broke” upon leaving the White House.
Indeed, considering that Bill and Hillary Clintonhave made more than $100 million since leaving the White House in 2000, it’s not surprising that many Americans see the former first couple as hopelessly detached from the problems of ordinary Americans despite presenting themselves as going through the very same struggles as other Americans.
“We had no money when we got there [to the White House],” explained Hillary Clinton in comments to ABC’s Diane Sawyer. “And we struggled to piece together the resources for mortgages for houses, for Chelsea’s education. It was not easy. Bill has worked really hard. And it’s been amazing to me. He’s worked very hard.”
Yet many Americans have also worked very hard, and they have not amassed the same kind of wealth as the Clintons, with multiple homes and over $100 million of earned income in the past decade. But underneath the social distance their wealth creates, there is a much deeper and more troubling truth. The real scandal is not that the Clintons are so wealthy but how they got that wealth.
In 2009, Bill Clinton addressed the Campus Progress National Summit, a gathering of progressive students in Washington, D.C. “I never made any money until I left the White House,”he told the students. “I had the lowest net worth, adjusted for inflation, of any president elected in the last 100 years, including President [Barack] Obama. I was one poor rascal when I took office. But after I got out, I made a lot of money.”
Thanks to the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), which compiles personal financial disclosures from federal public officials, and the ethics laws governing the U.S. Senate, we know a little bit about how the Clintons made their money. Federal disclosure laws require not only officeholders to disclose their finances but also their spouses, since spousal income is shared. Thus Hillary Clinton’s disclosures both as a U.S. senator and as secretary of state are a window into this shared fortune, one that was gleaned from the very same interest groups and corporations over which the Clintons had authority.
In 1999, Bill Clinton made repealing the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act — which separated commercial and investment banking — a priority. He commanded a bipartisan push in repealing the law, which was primarily advocated for by Wall Street lobbyists. Not long after his pen hit the paper to repeal the law, Citigroup, a top beneficiary of the repeal, recruited Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin to join as an executive at the firm. Rubin went on to be one of Citigroup’shighest-paid officials, pulling in $115 million in pay from 1999 and 2008.
While Rubin was made rich from Wall Street deregulation, his boss went on the lecture circuit. In February of 2001, Clinton had been out of the White House for less than a month when he gave his first paid speech, to none other than Morgan Stanley — another beneficiary of and advocate for Clinton’s Wall Street deregulation — for $125,000. His next address in Manhattan was at Credit Suisse First Boston, which gave him an additional $125,000. His paid speaking arrangements took him around the world, from Canada to Hong Kong, speaking to a variety of interest groups with major public policy interests, including the American Israel Chamber of Commerce and the investment banking giant CLSA. Clinton had also made passing the North American Free Trade Agreement a priority during his presidency, so it is no surprise that major Canadian firms such as the Jim Pattison Group ($150,000) were happy to pay to hear a few remarks from him as well.