Bill Clinton’s High Price

The former president would be an enormous asset to a Hillary Clinton administration. But it comes at a cost.

What, we worry? Former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attend the 37th Harkin Steak Fry on Sept. 14, 2014, in Indianola, Iowa.

Photo by Steve Pope/Getty Images

Bill Clinton left office a popular president, became a popular post-president, and re-entered politics at the end of the decade as one of the most effective advocates in the Democratic Party. He was key to the 2012 Democratic National Convention—almost overshadowing President Obama with a forceful defense of liberal governance—and stumped for candidates throughout the 2014 election cycle. Last year, when asked to rate living former presidents, 64 percent of Americans said they had a favorable view of Clinton, compared with 63 percent for the elder George Bush, 53 percent for George W. Bush, and 52 percent for Jimmy Carter.

In a Hillary Clinton campaign—not to mention a Hillary Clinton administration—her husband is a tremendous asset, someone who could help make the difference in a close election, or give valuable advice to a first-term president.

But there’s a cost to flying with Bill Clinton; you also have to carry his baggage. In 2008 this meant his questionable advisers and his remarks about a certain Illinois senator, including several—“This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen” and “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in ’84 and ’88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here.”—that backfired and let Sen. Barack Obama build the lead with black voters that would help him win the nomination. This time, it means the Clinton Foundation.

The foundation’s official name is the Bill, Hillary, & Chelsea Clinton Foundation. But originally it was the William J. Clinton Foundation, a project of Bill far more than Hillary, who had focused on her national political career. It was his fame, reputation, and powers of persuasion that drove the effort, which has raised and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on charitable activities around the world, from subsidizing HIV/AIDS drugs (and negotiating lower prices) to improving rural health care in developing countries and tackling climate change. But while Clinton and his foundation have done tremendous good, they have also had a questionable relationship with donors and contributors.

On Monday, New York Times reporter Amy Chozick wrote that the paper would be pursuing stories drawn from Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, a forthcoming book from conservative writer Peter Schweizer. And on Thursday the Times published its first take on Schweizer’s material: a long report on a Canadian uranium company whose principals gave huge sums to the Clinton Foundation while the State Department evaluated a deal to sell the company to a Russian energy firm. Overall, the foundation took millions of dollars from seven foreign governments while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, breaking a deal with the White House to disentangle the foundation from foreign donors. There’s also this, reported by Reuters: “Hillary Clinton’s family’s charities are refiling at least five annual tax returns after a Reuters review found errors in how they reported donations from governments, and said they may audit other Clinton Foundation returns in case of other errors.”

With that said, there’s no evidence of wrongdoing or illegal behavior. Hillary Clinton wasn’t involved in the review of the sale—which involved the State Department as well as eight other agencies—and the main donor, Frank Giustra, sold his stake in the business in 2007, long before anyone had any sense of Hillary Clinton’s political future. But while there’s no smoking gun, it’s hard to escape the sense that the Clintons are following their old pattern: walking to the edge of the ethical line, and probably not crossing it.

That’s even truer given the relationship among the foundation, its funders, and the Clintons’ personal wealth. “Bill Clinton was paid at least $26 million in speaking fees by companies and organizations that are also major donors to the foundation he created after leaving the White House,” writes the Washington Post in an analysis of public records and foundation data. Specifically, the former president was paid more than $100 million for speeches between 2001 and 2013. And of the 420 organizations that paid Clinton to speak, 67 were also foundation donors that gave at least $10,000, including major financial firms like Goldman Sachs, Barclays Capital, Deutsche Bank, and Citigroup, who have put millions in foundation coffers as well as the Clinton family bank account.

To an extent, this is defensible. Not only is it unsurprising that the same people and groups who give big donations to the Clinton Foundation would also pay a large fee to hear the president speak, but it’s also in the foundation’s interest as a charity to blur the lines; through speaking, Clinton can encourage listeners to make their own donations, and often these speaking events already require big pledges from participants. To a large degree, this is just how the world of the hyper-wealthy works. It’s unseemly, and as Jonathan Chait writes for New York magazine, it looks “greedy.”

Hillary Clinton chose to join this world. No, she couldn’t completely distance herself from her husband. But as a senator, a presidential candidate, and secretary of state, she had a separate career. She could have kept that separation in her time after the State Department, declining a role at the Clinton Foundation and keeping institutional distance from her husband. (She should have also worked to minimize any appearance of impropriety, but that’s a different story). Coming out of the Obama administration, she had built a strong, independent brand that withstood criticism and scandal. By joining with the foundation—and taking on its liabilities as well as its advantages—Clinton has squandered some of that reputation, in exchange for heightened scrutiny and the appearance of bad behavior.

Ahead of a second presidential campaign, the best thing Hillary Clinton could have done is keep Bill Clinton at arm’s length. He could campaign for her and fundraise for her, but she wouldn’t touch his projects or his priorities. With their long partnership—to say nothing of their marriage—this would have been hard. But if Hillary was serious about avoiding the problems and mistakes of her first campaign, it would have been necessary. As it stands, we’re looking at a mixed bag. Has Hillary Clinton avoided the bad advisers—and worst advice—of the past? It seems like it. Is she still carrying her husband’s baggage? Absolutely.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of Hillary Clinton.