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The Hillary in Our Future

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Martine Franck/Magnum Photos
Bill and Hillary Clinton at the Midwestern Ball after his inauguration, Washington, D.C., January 1993

As Hillary Rodham Clinton pursues the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, we face a situation that is wholly without precedent in modern American electoral history. There have been presumptive nominees before, usually sitting vice-presidents—Al Gore in 2000, George H.W. Bush in 1988, and Hubert Humphrey in 1968, to name three. But even they faced competition from candidates who were certainly from the “first tier”—Bill Bradley, Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Bobby Kennedy, and Gene McCarthy.

Clinton faces no such opposition within her party. It’s good that Senator Bernie Sanders has decided to enter the race. Clinton will have to debate him, and his mere presence will force her to take positions she could otherwise get away with not taking. But it’s rather unlikely that a socialist from Vermont can capture a major-party nomination. Similarly, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley probably doesn’t arouse much concern at Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters. He has a solid record of achievement in Annapolis and intriguing credentials as a Catholic committed to social justice. But he comes with baggage, too—the extremely incompetent implementation of Obamacare in his state and, now, the mere fact that he was once the mayor of the sad, segregated city of Baltimore, perpetually suspended in a kind of bitter aspic of deindustrialization, disinvestment, and broken promises. Sometimes governors exude clear presidential potential, as did Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. O’Malley, so far anyway, does not.

And that’s about it. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is out; she plainly does not want to be president. Although she’s been active in opposing Obama’s proposed Pacific trade agreement, she’s never shown a deep interest in foreign policy, which is a rather important part of any president’s job, particularly so at this point in history. Short of incapacitating illness or a scandal of enormous proportions, Clinton will almost certainly be the Democratic nominee.

This puts her in a strong position, but it also places a special burden on her. It means that the nation’s liberals and Democrats, millions of people who usually have a choice to make, in essence don’t have one here. There is much at stake in next year’s election. For a start, a new president who serves two terms may well nominate three or even four justices to the Supreme Court, meaning either that the Court’s conservative majority will be solidified and enlarged, with more allies of Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito, or that it will be reversed, giving the country a liberal Supreme Court majority for the first time since the 1980s. Such a Court could spend a generation or two reversing the precedents set by the Courts of William Rehnquist and John Roberts.

So Clinton, who leads in national polls and will benefit from an Electoral College map that favors any Democratic candidate, has a special obligation as a candidate. She has to run a better race than she ran in 2008. She needs to show—as she already has on issues like immigration, criminal justice, and the tax rates of hedge fund managers—that she is attuned to where the electorate is today. And she needs to take all reasonable steps to avoid taints of scandal. If a late-breaking controversy over Clinton’s record and character propels someone like Scott Walker to the White House, the sense of betrayal and despair will be ferocious.

The Clinton Foundation—until recently the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation—has done a lot of good in the world since its founding in 2001. By far its largest program—$128 million spent in 2013—is the Clinton Health Access Initiative, which facilitates the provision of, and negotiates price reductions for, AIDS and malarial drugs to millions of people in Africa and elsewhere. It does other work to expand access to health care in developing countries.

The second-largest of the foundation’s seven major programs ($23.6 million in 2013) is the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), which “convenes global leaders to create and implement innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges,” according to the foundation’s website. In early May, the CGI hosted a meeting in Marrakesh where regional leaders were introduced to experts on youth unemployment, innovation, entrepreneurship, and kindred topics. The foundation also funds work related to domestic poverty and the effects of climate change both in the United States and around the world.

Some critics have raised questions about several of the foundation’s programs. For example, does anything constructive actually happen in poor countries once those regional leaders go back home after getting to hobnob with Bill Clinton for a few days? The foundation often operates at the intersection of the nonprofit, public-sector, and management-consulting worlds, and it is hard to discern clear results of some of its activities. Yet at the same time, there can be little doubt that Bill Clinton’s work has saved and improved lives. Back when the foundation still used to get good press, an Atlantic article described in detail how Clinton and his old friend Ira Magaziner, then working with the foundation, succeeded in negotiating with pharmaceutical companies for lower anti-AIDS drug prices:

So the foundation went to governments in Africa and the Caribbean and organized demand for AIDS drugs, obtaining intentions to place large orders if prices could be cut. It simultaneously went to drug companies, offering them a much larger and less-volatile market for AIDS drugs in return for lower prices based on the projected higher volume. Although the foundation asked for aggressive “forward pricing” to kick-start demand, it pointedly did not ask for donations or charity. “To be sustainable,” says Magaziner, “this can’t be a charitable act.” Rather, the foundation was offering a business proposition: If we get you the demand, can you get us the supply?1

It’s hard to argue with that, and no one outside of the right-wing fever swamps really does.

What people argue with are two things: the donations the foundation accepts from foreign governments and individuals, and the speaker fees paid to Bill and Hillary Clinton. For the most part those payments are not specifically related to the foundation; but they are given much emphasis by the Clintons’ numerous opponents. There is palpable fear among them that she will win the presidency, serve eight years, reshape the Supreme Court, and pursue the other lamentable goals one might expect from the Clintons.

The foundation took in $198.8 million in 2013, a staggering $55,000 a day. It claims on its website that 90 percent of its donations are $100 or smaller (how many people must it employ simply to stay on top of this inflow?). But it’s the large foreign donations that have raised questions. Often, the foreign donors are looking to make money on various kinds of business deals in far-flung locales where it just might help to know Bill Clinton; even better would be to show up in the dusty capital city at his side. The Canadian investor Frank Giustra, who figures in the current controversies and is a foundation board member, gave or pledged more than $100 million around the same time that he was pursuing business opportunities in Kazakhstan and Colombia.

A bigger problem is that the foundation has accepted donations from foreign governments, some of which aren’t especially known for their commitments to democracy and transparency. The awkward appearance of all this was compounded, of course, while Hillary served as secretary of state. During her tenure, The Washington Post has reported, the foundation accepted donations from seven foreign governments, including Algeria, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman.2 In 2010, the year of Algeria’s donation, Hillary Clinton’s State Department issued a human rights report noting that in Algeria there were restrictions on the press and academic freedom, as well as instances of torture.

On the subject of the speeches, the amounts are simply stunning. The New York Times, looking through newly released disclosure forms, reported in mid-May that Bill and Hillary Clinton made—the Times said “earned,” though that verb seems difficult to justify—at least $30 million delivering speeches in the previous sixteen months.3 Her average fee was $235,000; his, around $250,000. Together, they have made more than $125 million giving speeches since 2001, to say nothing of book royalties and investment income.

First of all—and here’s a question that is rarely raised—what on earth do they say in exchange for this kind of money? It’s difficult to know. Generally, the speeches are what we call “closed press” in the trade, and texts and transcripts are usually not posted anywhere. But on YouTube, I did find one paid speech by Bill Clinton, to something called the SharePoint Conference, held by Microsoft in March 2014. According to disclosure forms the Times posted alongside its mid-May article, he received $225,000 for this speech.

It went about as you’d expect if you’ve caught snippets of Clinton talking about his foundation work and his larger view of the world. During his forty-four-minute talk, he thanked Microsoft for its work with the foundation; boasted about the foundation’s work; segued into a broader discussion about the power of technology; and invoked the great challenges of inequality and global instability. The overriding theme of the talk was how we choose to define ourselves as a species, as identity-based competitors or common-good-pursuing cooperators.

He must have said some version of “what we have in common is more important than our interesting differences” fifteen times. He concluded by quoting E.O. Wilson to the effect that “the conquest of Earth has come only to the cooperators. The great cooperating species are ants, termites, bees, and people.” The talk was wide-ranging, stuffed full of interesting facts about this or that project in China or Haiti, occasionally charming, a bit on the windy side, and it cost Microsoft $5,113.64 a minute.

So now we have Clinton Cash, by the conservative author and researcher Peter Schweizer. It is worth knowing that Schweizer has been an occasional consultant to Republican, and only Republican, politicians. He was a speechwriting consultant to the George W. Bush White House. He helped write Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s autobiography. And in what was probably among his more challenging assignments, he advised Sarah Palin on foreign policy.

He’s written a short book, with fifty-six pages of footnotes, a few of them as long as Op-Ed columns, and only 184 pages of text. Its eleven chapters cover different episodes during which, the author alleges, Hillary Clinton took some action as secretary of state or changed her position as a senator in exchange for money paid either to the Clinton Foundation or to Bill in the form of a speaking fee. He cites Giustra’s investments in Kazakhstan and Colombia; there’s a chapter called “Warlord Economics” on Africa; another on Haitian disaster relief; another on a Russian uranium deal; one on “Rainforest Riches”; and one on Hillary Clinton’s position on a United States agreement with India on nuclear technology. Australia doesn’t have a chapter, so at least that’s one continent spared the effects of the Clintons’ alleged cupidity.

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Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
Bill and Hillary Clinton at the tenth annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, New York City, September 2014

Clinton Cash has been the subject of much controversy, which was kicked off by an April 19 New York Times article announcing its imminent arrival.4 The article noted that the book is published by Harper, and it pointed out that the Fox News Channel had struck an “exclusive” deal to use some of the book’s findings to pursue its own reporting angles (it did not mention that both of those entities are owned by Rupert Murdoch). Rather more surprisingly, the article explained that two other news organizations had struck similar “exclusive” deals with Schweizer: The Washington Post and The New York Times.

From the moment that Times article appeared, which was about three weeks before the book itself did, both sides went to their respective barricades. On the right, that meant Fox, talk radio, and a few websites like Breitbart.com. On the left, it chiefly meant the nonprofit group Media Matters for America, led by David Brock, the onetime conservative Clinton critic who is now a powerful figure in the Washington liberal nonprofit world and a committed Clinton booster.5 Media Matters devoted several consecutive days to a feverish project of correcting some factual errors and bringing to light issues such as Schweizer’s partisan background. In return, Schweizer, on a May 4 radio appearance with conservative talk-radio host Dana Loesch, joined in speculation that the Clintons might literally have him, to use a piece of old Mafia slang, clipped:

Loesch: I know you don’t want to talk too much about it, but there is that, there is always that concern for anyone who goes up against the Clinton machine that they could be Vince Fostered, and I’m sure that that was something that you took into consideration.

Schweizer: Yeah, I mean look—there are security concerns that arise in these kinds of situations. You know, you don’t like to go into too much detail, there were some things that were going on that we felt needed to be addressed.

What can be made of Schweizer’s allegations? Some of what he puts forward is disquieting. For example, of the thirteen speeches Bill Clinton had given for fees of $500,000 or more during the period Schweizer researched, eleven occurred while Hillary was secretary of state. This suggests that even assuming the Clintons themselves are squeaky clean, rich corporations or individuals may have thought they had the chance of getting something in return for such high fees. There are a number of such points in the book, where readers will say to themselves, “Wow, if this is true….”

But that “if” turns out to be a big one, because here is the book’s fatal flaw: Schweizer doesn’t engage in journalism. He does a decent—and, clearly, convincing, at least to a number of observers, including some journalists—imitation of journalism. But it isn’t really journalism.

Investigative journalism involves three basic parts. First, a reporter collects his documents. This, Schweizer has done (mostly). But that’s just step one. Step two is finding sources who can discuss the documents and what lies behind them. An investigative journalist would, for example, have tried to develop sources within Frank Giustra’s organization, or other sources of inside information, in an effort to get them to confirm or explain certain facts. And third, a journalist goes to the target of his allegations and gives the target a chance to respond. One may do this for legal reasons, but also because there may actually be reasonable explanations for odd-seeming occurrences, and the reporter is not only obliged to be accurate but also doesn’t want to wind up discredited.

Schweizer largely dispensed with steps two and three. He does write that he made “repeated calls” to Giustra asking him to confirm or deny whether he was an investor in a Russian uranium deal. But there’s no evidence in the book that Schweizer tried to develop inside sources or give the Clintons an opportunity to comment. (I asked the foundation and the campaign if Schweizer ever contacted them, and both said no.)

When you don’t do these things, your story has a way of collapsing, as appears to be the case with Schweizer’s allegations pertaining to a deal between the US and India on nuclear development. When I first read the book, I thought this was perhaps the single most damaging allegation in it, involving as it did the transfer of nuclear technology to a state that hasn’t signed the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and is thought to possess around one hundred nuclear warheads. Schweizer’s basic charge here is that as a senator in 2006, Hillary Clinton opposed the deal, but two years later, after wealthy Indian donors gave millions to the foundation, she did an abrupt about-face and backed it. According to Schweizer, this constituted “a clear reversal of her previous policy positions” and, he implies, went against the dominant (he means honest) thinking in the Democratic Party at the time.

But this isn’t quite what happened. Politifact.com, the independent website that fact-checks such claims, looked into Schweizer’s allegation and rated it “false.” It’s a complicated story that turns on the nature of specific amendments the Senate voted on in 2006 and 2008; but the bottom line is that Clinton spoke publicly in support of the deal back in 2006, so whether her position was a good or bad one, there was certainly no about-face.6

In the pages of Clinton Cash, the case seemed airtight. But if he can’t even track down—or chooses not to share—a public statement Senator Clinton’s office issued on June 29, 2006, in support of the pact (it’s linked to in the Politifact piece), then it’s fair to wonder what else he left out.

The book worked its way through the news cycle in late April and early May. It’s hard to measure its impact. But the foundation and speeches are not going away as issues. The press smells a big story here.

Indeed, there seems to be something more going on than that. Toward the tail end of the Schweizer wave, Politico’s Dylan Byers wrote a post arguing that Hillary Clinton was the clear favorite for 2016.7 The Electoral College advantage, he wrote, is probably just too formidable. Besides, her opponents have thrown everything they could at her, from Whitewater on up to Benghazi, and not enough of it has stuck.

Then Byers, whom I’ve always found to be a reliable barometer of the collective thinking of the Washington media establishment, wrote a very revealing sentence. Mitigating against all of the above, he wrote, is the fact that “the national media have never been more primed to take down Hillary Clinton (and, by the same token, elevate a Republican candidate).” Not primed to investigate, or primed to scrutinize, or even primed to rake over the coals. Primed to take down.

I think there is much truth in Byers’s assertion. He doesn’t go into the reasons for this. They are many and complex. For some, maybe it’s simply that she is such a clear front-runner, and they want to slay Goliath. There is likely some sexism involved, whether conscious or unconscious. Maybe some do believe that the Clintons are unusually corrupt. Also, in fairness, it must be said that the Clintons, especially Hillary, have never been very accommodating to the press, so the traffic on this street runs two ways.

But at bottom, there seems to be a feeling—and I am talking here about the mainstream, even “liberal,” media, not conservative outlets—that the Clintons play by their own rules and keep getting away with one thing or another. Washington is a city of custom, and the permanent class of insiders who live here have fashioned a certain set of rules for all who come here to live by, and the Clintons have never really lived by those rules. In 1998, after the Lewinsky story broke and polls showed majorities favoring resignation or impeachment if he lied under oath, Bill Clinton said, “Well, we’ll just have to win, then.” He was breaking the rules. And he did win, because the public didn’t find a sexual liaison to be an impeachable offense and because the economy was blazing. This outcome infuriated the keepers of the conventional wisdom.

The New York Times is worth keeping an eye on here. It will endorse Hillary Clinton when the time comes, but the far more important question is how it will use its news pages to write about her between now and then. It was shocking that the Times based a piece on Clinton Cash, a book with an obvious political motive that was written by a former adviser to Republican politicians, some very right-wing. The paper that pushed the Whitewater story hard in 1992 and in 1998 ran a series of editorials calumniating Bill Clinton and praising prosecutor Ken Starr is now apparently prepared to continue in that tradition. In recent weeks, the Times has published two more articles along these lines, one about Hillary’s brother Tony Rodham, and another about Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal. Whether it will devote similar resources to scrutinizing Jeb Bush or other prospective Republican nominees seems a fair question.

Meanwhile, though, the Clintons need to think about and address their own situation as well. It is precisely because she is the all-but-inevitable candidate on whom so many hopes will be pinned that she has a clear responsibility, as does her husband, to take into account these media biases and still do everything they can to make these allegations float away.

As I’ve written previously, they should announce, and soon, a series of dramatic steps they will take to change the way the foundation does business.8 On April 15, the foundation announced three changes, including that it will now accept foreign money only from Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United Kingdom. The Clintons should go much farther, even to the point of downsizing the foundation’s operations, eliminating some programs.

And with respect to the speaking fees, while she stopped taking them once she became a candidate, it’s a little hard to understand why he can’t just stop for a while, or say he’ll no longer accept more than X amount, or do only ten a year, or something. They have amassed a fortune north of $125 million. The next several generations of Clintons could lead very expensive lives, and they would still be quite rich. But Bill seems defensive on this point. Recently, an NBC reporter asked him about the half-million-dollar fees, and he said: “I’ve got to pay our bills.”

They need to do better than this, and not just for political reasons, but because judgments about their integrity and future use of power are at stake. It’s one thing to be secretary of state. It’s another to be the president. A presidency can’t have questions like this swirling around it from day one. Imagine speculation that a White House decision with regard to Russia or Pakistan was influenced by a donation to the foundation from someone pursuing a business deal in one of those countries. Even if wholly unfounded, in today’s media environment, the mere speculation could alter outcomes. Bill Clinton could also be a tremendous asset to his wife’s administration as an envoy, but if the press is chasing “appearance of conflict” stories, it will be much harder for him to be effective.

The record so far suggests, though, that the Clintons won’t take dramatic steps. They’ll take just enough steps. It almost seems that they prefer living inside the maelstrom at this point. But it’s hard on a lot of other people.

  1. 1

    See Jonathan Rauch, “This Is Not Charity,” The Atlantic, October 2007.  

  2. 2

    See Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger, “Foreign Governments Gave Millions to Foundation While Clinton Was at State Dept.,” The Washington Post, February 25, 2015.  

  3. 3

    See Maggie Haberman and Steve Eder, “Clintons Earned $30 Million in 16 Months, Report Shows,” The New York Times, May 15, 2015. 

  4. 4

    See Amy Chozick, “New Book, ‘Clinton Cash,’ Questions Foreign Donations to Foundation,” The New York Times, April 19, 2005.  

  5. 5

    I should note that I wrote two Daily Beast columns criticizing some of the book’s claims and what I saw as the media’s credulous role in advancing them. But I also wrote one column that criticized the Clintons and argued that they should issue new rules about what kinds of gifts they’ll accept from now on, and how they’ll report them. 

  6. 6

    See Lauren Carroll, “‘Clinton Cash’ Author: Hillary Clinton Changed Positions on India Nuclear Deal,” Politifact.com, May 6, 2015.  

  7. 7

    See Dylan Byers, “Hillary Clinton’s Election to Lose,” Politico, May 7, 2015. 

  8. 8

    See my column “How Hillary Recovers from ‘Clinton Cash,’” The Daily Beast, April 28, 2015.