I’m going to try wrangling some ideas that came up in a recent Twitter discussion/debate with the leading Jefferson scholar Annette Gordon-Reed, in hopes of arriving at greater clarity than the 140-character back-and-forth allowed, or allowed me, anyway. I’d been watching social-media reaction to President Obama’s accepting a big speaking fee backed by a well-known Wall Street firm and considering my reactions, going back to the end of the 1980’s, to what has become accepted practice for former presidents: embarking on new careers that involve making significant income for having served the office. Since Gerald Ford pioneered that practice — until the other day, I’d always thought it was Ronald Reagan — every former president with the exception of Jimmy Carter has engaged in it. I’d taken Reagan to be the first because his $2M for two speeches was memorable at the time. And yet with Reagan it seemed unhappily characteristic of the man and the nature of his presidency, so I recall also being (naively) startled when learning of Bill Clinton’s speaking fees.
It’s thus not, to me, Obama who personally errs here. Yes, we have the Carter example, but what I call wrong with the practice has to do with what I think is a fundamentally ill effect on the body politic. That nowadays such fees will most often come from some segment now shorthanded as “Wall Street” underscores the issue, in this time of scarifying inequality between the richest and poorest, and of the pervasive, now militant public opinion that government is rigged on behalf of the richest and most powerful. It’s an opinion that, while it often seems fully justified, is having a frighteningly destructive effect on our politics and public discourse.
I posted this on Twitter: “It’s never been OK that former presidents make that kind of $ giving talks to people who can pay that kind of $ to hear those talks.” And “That presidents spend their terms knowing such affirmation and inclusion await makes the office itself a bad joke.” And “Everyone compromises for money, but there are limits. No serious person would want this kind of inclusion unless it spoke to something deep.”
Crudely put, those are my longstanding reactions to the practice of parlaying having been president into a high-income career making personal appearances.
Annette Gordon-Reed responded with this question: “How much should they make?” And then we’re off to the races, because while what I think I’m objecting to is the career itself — having served as president as a way of making money — it’s true that exact amounts play a big role in public discussion. If former presidents were catching a bit of beer money, here and there and every so often, the issue wouldn’t have legs. Reaction to Reagan’s 2M was like “What?! Two? Million? Dollars?” And given the current sense, directly affecting the last election, that government is a revolving door inside-job for bringing wealth to members of elites, both sources and amounts of money play a natural role.
That’s why there’s no answer to AG-R’s question. Of course I don’t know how much former presidents should make for giving speeches, and I don’t think anyone else does either. The “what’s the big deal” element in reactions to the reactions — and to my wandering speculations about what, beyond sheer financial gain, might inspire former presidents to leap with such brio onto this train — is for me the real problem, far more than the exact amounts, which are always going to sound high to ordinary people. And their sources are always going to lie in concentrations of power. AG-R looks at the choice to engage in the career, or not, as purely personal, with possible reasons behind doing so no more significant than the (admittedly inexplicable) habit of eating licorice, unrevealing of anything structurally problematic. I just can’t see it that way, so I try to figure out what the difference is.
In that context, it emerged in the ensuing Twitter back-and-forth that my recoil from the practice may involve something puritanical, which AG-R defines as “an instinct to regulate others’ behavior even if it d/not affect one personally on basis of supposed higher good.” I don’t think I have that instinct any more than the next guy, but this idea just feels so off-point: I’m asserting (can’t prove!) that the practice does affect, not me personally, but all of us in a negative way; and I’m certainly not proposing regulating it! I’m pursuing what it may mean, not so much about Obama, or about any of the others, but about the office itself, and the relationship between the public and the office.
This gets into novelty. The fact is, the big-fee thing is new. That doesn’t make it bad. The pension is newish, and I’m for that. AG-R points out that presidents didn’t used to do comedy skits on TV shows either. Further exposing my priggishness regarding the office, I wish they wouldn’t do skits now (I live in a world in which many ships have sailed); still, the first president gave constant attention to his personal commercial business while in office and saw his western-land portfolio rise in value after suppressing unrest in western Pennslyvania with military force. Nobody thinks less than I do that our past offers good models of lean, clean, republican virtue. The fact that money has always been in government — this thing Ford started being only the most modern iteration — doesn’t make it any less corrupting, to me. Corrupting, that is, of the relationship of citizens and government. That view probably does reflect — despite or even because of my personal interest in financial gain and the things money can buy — some Puritan influence. (“Puritanical“ may nevertheless be defined as AG-R defines it. I don’t know.)
Then there’s the issue of of viewing “Wall Street” as a conglomerate evil. Another Twitter user, Tosh Meston, suggested during the exchange that people criticizing the Obama speaking fee must simply find it “icky,” given the source — feeling revolted rather than thinking the matter through.
But construing criticism as nothing but a collapse to the fainting couch doesn’t magically make the criticism itself legless. I take AG-R’s point that, if we have retirement accounts, they’re of course invested by Wall Street and managed by Wall Street people. I’d never said anything about Wall Street people being bad — that presumption is why I’m trying to get a handle on the issues here. Questioning former presidents’ making nice with and taking fees from “Wall Street” doesn’t to me have to do with the quality of the people. I like my financial advisor OK too. The objection has to do with the fact — at this point, I admit, probably ineluctable, because evidently so readily defensible — that the office has become an avenue to such fees, and to the elite celebration they reflect. Because of political decisions we’re making all the time, the money and the celebration are located in the greatest concentrations of power: institutions “too big to fail,” etc.
Some people really do think Obama made a personal financial calculation in not prosecuting Wall Street offenders. I doubt it works that way.
Meston also asked, rhetorically, and evidently referring to Obama, “Is he not a private citizen?” Well, no, he’s not, because they’re all not. They’re sustained financially and made secure at public expense; they’re addressed and referred to by the public title of the office they held. But AG-R also pointed out a specific issue facing this president — as a private citizen. For generations, government policies have barred African Americans from building up the ownership and investment widely seen as critical to the basics of the American Dream. I should underscore the point: it’s not that the Clintons, say, were somehow always rich because they were white; lots of white people haven’t achieved wealth or even security; the Clintons got rich, in exactly the ways that most presidents who aren’t already rich now will, after Bill Clinton served.
Yet government efforts, going back to the beginning of the country, and prevailing throughout New Deal and Great Society and other federal housing and other policies, explicitly and deliberately shifted wealth away from African Americans. And those effects, even if they were being effectively remedied, wouldn’t be remedied fast, because real accumulation of wealth and security, where it happens at all, is a multi-generational process. (There’s a lot out there now on this issue; the story is dramatically distilled in Bob Herbert’s recent PBS documentary Against All Odds.)
So if there’s some particular disappointment in Obama personally, maybe particularly among some white people, based on an idea that might go something like “how could he, of all people, do such a thing as take Wall Street money, when he was supposed to be the one to deliver us from evil?” then that needs a lot of unpacking. Any sense that of all people, this president should join Jimmy Carter and nobody else in eschewing any of the benefits that others have had no compunction about enjoying reflects on longstanding expectations, even demands, that seem to place a condition on African American presidency. I sensed this for eight years. This presidency had to be holier than all others and thus redeem the nation. Whenever it obviously wasn’t — all the time, really, since that stuff doesn’t exist– man, did some people ever turn on the president.
As longtime readers of this blog know, I’ve always been skeptical of Obama’s approach to history, to law, to the presidency. I still don’t like this money-making and reward-garnering tradition in the presidency, and I still think it’s part and parcel of the immediate crisis we face. But if people think there’s a special responsibility placed on Obama, in particular, to fix this thing — that by doing what all the others, except Carter, now routinely do, he’s betraying something elemental — well, that’s just part of an age-old racial fantasy, which has affected his historic presidency strangely, and that we still aren’t looking at.