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“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 Clinton have 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.”
Clinton didn’t just make “a lot of money” when he left the White House. Together, the Clintons pulled in $111 million from 2000 to 2007 — far more than what most people would consider a lot.
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.
A year after Hillary Clinton called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his family 'friends' of her family, Bill Clinton was paid $250,000 to speak to the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, which was closely tied to the Mubarak regime.
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.
Bill Clinton in his spree of speeches repeatedly returned to two of the banking giants at the heart of political power in Washington: Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. In 2004 he took home a quarter-million dollars for a Citigroup address in Paris; Goldman Sachs gave him $125,000 for a New York City address. That address must have been a real hit for the former president, because Goldman invited him back for a series of lectures the next year, at Kiawah Island, South Carolina ($125,000); Paris ($250,000); and Greensboro, Georgia ($150,000). The next year, Citigroup Venture Capital invited him for a $150,000 speech, and the Mortgage Bankers Association — representing the folks at the very heart of the financial crisis — gave him $150,000 for a speech in Chicago.
Goldman and Citigroup repeatedly paid Clinton for the next few years, and a number of other major corporate interest groups — such as the National Retail Federation ($150,000) and Merrill Lynch ($175,000) — also joined in the fun.
After Hillary Clinton lost her presidential bid and was appointed to the State Department, she and her husband had brought in more than $100 million from books and speeches. By any measure, they had far more wealth than they needed to pay debts and to take care of their daughter’s future — the reasons Hillary Clinton cited to Diane Sawyer.
Shortly after stepping down from her post, the she then embarked on her own spree of paid speeches, which don’t have to be disclosed because neither Clinton is a public official anymore. But from voluntarily disclosures and press reports, we know that she gave at least two paid speeches to Goldman Sachs for $200,000 each. Although she has not disclosed her full remarks at these events, a number of attendees talked to Politico about her tone and content. “Clinton offered a message that the collected plutocrats found reassuring, according to accounts offered by several attendees, declaring that the banker-bashing so popular within both political parties was unproductive and indeed foolish,” read the article. We won’t know the full extent of payments for speeches unless Clinton chooses to release them or she officially declares for president and has to release her personal financial documents since 2013.
What has been laid out here is only a small sample of the vortex of wealth that Hillary and Bill Clinton have received from corporations, foundations, foreign organizations and others with an interest in U.S. public policy. No one with any knowledge of politics believes these payments to be disinterested or impartial; they are part of a larger political system that rewards politicians for fealty and obedience. The Clintons were simply following a path laid by other politicos, such as former U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, who raked in millions of dollars as a drug lobbyist after crafting an industry-friendly Medicare overhaul, and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who has leveraged his experience in government to enrich himself influence-peddling for a variety of corporate clients without ever having to officially register as a lobbyist.
Given their immense wealth and how they got it — politicized kickbacks from the most powerful political forces in Washington, on Wall Street and around the globe — the Clintons would do well to admit that they are unusually wealthy and stop trying to pass themselves off as ordinary folks. If they don’t, their fate may very well resemble Romney’s, as mounting public anger over growing income and wealth inequality could prevent them from returning to the White House in 2016.
Zaid Jilani is a former senior reporter and blogger at ThinkProgress and a freelance journalist. He is a Syracuse University graduate student seeking his MPA.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.