A Fine Madness

Saturday morning, Chatterbox awoke dazzled by the cleverness of the would-be congressional dealmakers who are again peddling the notion that Bill Clinton should be fined as well as censured. The Washington Post reports that calculations of the proper fiscal penalty range from $300,000 (the Newt Gingrich model) to $4.5 million (this year’s cost of Ken Starr’s Flytrap probe). Clinton lawyers, according to the Post, have signaled that they are tempted by this kind of combination-plate settlement.

Chatterbox doesn’t want to be a grinch, but could someone please explain how Clinton would pay off this projected addition to his debt load? Compared to the insolvent president, Charlie Croker, the debt-plagued Atlanta real-estate hustler who is Tom Wolfe’s Man in Full, is a paragon of fiscal restraint. According to the Clintons’ last fiscal disclosure form, the first family owed $8 million in back legal fees by the end of 1997. And 1998 has not exactly been a year devoid of fresh legal hassles for the president.

So let’s look at some of the money-making options open to the anything-for-a-buck former president come 2001:

Books: As an author, Clinton comes with a troubled track record. Random House took a major bath on Clinton’s last tome, his 1996 campaign-year classic, Between Hope and History. As David Streitfeld put it in a memorable line in the Post, “If Random House took its leftover copies of President Clinton’s book and made a bridge out of them, it would reach all the way to the 22nd century.” The numbers were daunting: Random House printed 500,000 copies and managed to sell just one fifth of them.

Speeches: The lecture circuit will, of course, be a major profit center for Clinton. But Americans have been finicky about outlandish speaking fees for former presidents. Back in 1989, Ronald Reagan was slammed for picking up $2 million for a 10-day trip to Japan. In classic understatement, Charles Wick, who was serving as the Gipper’s lecture agent, tried to spin the fee as merely “an attractive honorarium.” But columnist Bill Safire wrote in outrage, “The hiring of Ronald Reagan by Japanese businessmen to serve as their glad-hander and front man for a festive week in Tokyo–within one year of his leaving office–strikes the nostrils with the force of week-old sushi.”

No-Show Jobs: Lord knows, Clinton knows how to get them. Remember that Starr’s original pretext for taking charge of the Flytrap investigation was that Vernon Jordan’s job hunt for Monica resembled the alleged hush-money payments to Web Hubbell. As Starr recounted in his Judiciary Committee testimony, “Mr. Hubbell received payments totalling nearly $550,000 from several companies and individuals. Many were campaign contributors. … In June 1994, during a week in which he made several visits to the White House, Indonesian businessman James Riady met with Webster Hubbell and then wired him $100,000.”

What splendid irony. To pay off his projected congressional fine, Clinton, as a former president, need only put in a cash call to his loyal friend James Riady. Talk about everything coming full circle.

–Walter Shapiro