Over the past eight years, at a time when his party was making a comeback, when his personal popularity was increasing, when his wife was a Senator everyone expected to run for President, why, oh, why did Bill Clinton believe he needed tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions to his charitable foundation from Saudi Arabia and most of the little Arabias, and a host of other foreign governments, potentates, and shady tycoons? And did he really need to roam the world giving speeches for payments of up to $400,000 a pop to assorted overseas companies?
The answer is probably simple: he was thinking of himself.
His foundation presumably did many good works, but does anyone believe the Saudi royal family ponied up multiple millions because they wanted to help Bill conquer disease or fend off global warming? They were buying access, not only to Clinton personally, but also to the whole network of people associated with, or potentially influenced by, him. They were hoping to influence American policies, one way or another.
The charitable foundation and the rest of the ex-President's globe-trotting activities are all of a piece. Clinton would go to the Persian Gulf, give a couple of expensive speeches to favored, insider audiences, rub shoulders with various princes, sheiks and bankers, hit them up for donations to his foundation, and make friends. Even if he never did a single inappropriate favor for any of these guys -- and we have to take him at his word, if he says he did not -- the appearance created was that the past President of the United States on the make for money.
The sad thing is that he did not have to do any of this. Suppose his foundation raised only $300 million instead of $500 million by relying on Bill Gates, Barbra Streisand, et al. for the money? Would the globe be a lot warmer?
I don't believe that any of this means that Hillary Clinton will be compromised in any way as Secretary of State. And President-elect Obama and his team have done the right thing by forcing Bill to make these disclosures and limit his future activities.
We are still left with the specter of a former President appearing to take advantage of his status to aggrandize himself, whether through added celebrity, behind-the-scenes influence, or financial gain. This is no less unseemly because George H.W. Bush has done his share of money-making in ventures involving foreign interests.
In the not-so-distant past, ex-Presidents more or less disappeared, emerging occasionally to promote a book or dedicate a library. Harry Truman returned to his wife's modest family home in Independence, Missouri, and lived a long time without seeming to feel any need to get rich. Dwight Eisenhower retired to his farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and mostly kept his mouth shut. Even the always-voluble LBJ went back to his ranch and was rarely heard from again. While Johnson may have been hiding out to lick his wounds, Ronald Reagan was immensely popular when he left office, but he still retired quietly.
Jimmy Carter is, of course, still makes the occasional headline even 27 years after his Presidency ended. Carter drives conservatives up the wall with his penchant injecting himself into international issues without an official portfolio. I find some of his activities annoying, as I'm sure Barack Obama will. But to give Jimmy his due, he has not tried to enrich himself, and he has no close relatives in high office.
Like Carter, Clinton was a young man when he left the White House, so you'd expect him to launch another career of some kind. But Bill had a world of choices: he might have taught or wrote, sought a university presidency, or launched a campaign, as Al Gore did, on a major public policy issue. Apparently, none of those or other options satisfied his well-known need for attention.
George W. Bush is still in his early sixties, and Barack Obama will only be 55 when he completes a likely second term. We should all hope that Clinton's choice does not set an example for these future ex-Presidents.