I don’t want to get into the details of this right now, but there is a time I had an interesting phone conversation with former President George H.W. Bush. Some interested parties in Japan were approaching him to come to Japan after the conclusion of his presidential term and were offering him $2 million.
I was approached by a larger Japanese news conglomerate who wanted me to approach Bush — so I called his newly established private office. It was clear to me that Bush and his secretary were the only ones in his new office because they had tried to send a fax to me as if it were from another Bush-handler, but I just had the feeling the person wasn’t in Texas yet. When trying to get this particular person identified on the fax (who was responding for Bush to me) on the phone, Bush himself got on the phone — and it was a memorable and fascinating conversation.
He was being represented by the Harry Walker Agency and wanted to make sure that Harry (Harry’s son now runs that business) got his fair cut — and put me in touch with him. But Bush was interested — but wanted just $1 million. Reagan had in direct compensation and in the overall cost of his trip had enjoyed a Japan excursion that cost about $8 million total, paid for by Fujisankei Communications. Bush wanted none of that controversy.
I wasn’t being compensated to play a middleman role in all of this but was trying to be helpful — and wanted to learn how these things moved along. I ended up meeting Harry Walker in New York — great guy actually — and he wanted to start a business line with me lining up some of the nation’s top political talent for Asian deals. I politely wiggled out of that expectation and stayed in the less lucrative public policy business.
I don’t think Bush ever took that trip. The sponsors wanted 8 speeches from Bush, and they were clearly syndicating him around Japan and lining up other sponsors and trying to use President Bush as the bait to make money themselves. Bush wanted just one speech and maybe a couple of other appearances — and was willing to go as far as two speeches for the million dollars. But in the end, the package fell apart, until the sponsors lined him up a few years later.
I mention this because despite the large amount of money involved, Bush demonstrated some judiciousness about his role and the degree of crassness he would permit regarding selling his stature for compensation. Bill Clinton seems much more willing to speak for large fees, but I don’t know his going rate. I see that he is represented by Harry Walker as well — and at the time Bush told me that Walker’s take on each speech was 20%.
I liked Bush and talked to him again, in person, at Richard Nixon’s funeral. He remembered the conversation, and we spoke briefly about the awkward tension he felt between making a living speaking at gigs around the world and not wanting to inappropriately or excessively benefit from his stature as a former president. Some reading this will scoff at these comments from Bush given the lucrative family relationships the Bush family has enjoyed with the Saudis and many other monied interests around the world — because of their stature — but if you were there with me in person, you might have read what I did in Bush’s comments — that he genuinely felt awkward about it.
Since then, I have always been interested in the financial conflicts that high profile politicians, pundits, and media stars might encounter. James Fallows wrote about this in a brilliant short book called Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine Democracy. Fallows’ book is even more relevant today given the Armstrong Williams scandal and the fact that the Bush administration has tried to buy off a number of journalists.
A previously unreported incident that runs along these lines occurred when agents representing Rodrigo de Rato contacted me in the weeks preceding his formal appointment as Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund.
Rato was among those at the top of the list jousting to run the IMF, and as it became increasingly clear he would get the job, a speaker’s agent offered him to the New America Foundation. We were asked to pay a speaker’s fee to Rato — and I was told that I could confirm all of this with Rato by phone if I needed to check the credentials and status of these agents. I stupidly let all of this drop, though I did speak with the agent several times.
But it seemed profoundly unethical to me that the IMF Managing Director to be would market himself for a fee because his stock had just risen in the eyes of those concerned with international economic policy. There are laws in the U.S. about jacking up prices of goods during natural disasters — and Rodrigo de Rato’s agents were crossing a line too.
Just to be fair to Rato, I never did call him — and know that there exists the possibility that these agents were just being entrepreneurs and trying to line stuff up without his formal endorsement. But still the tale deserves to be told as I’ve presented it.
I actually told a guy at the IMF about this attempt to extort speaker’s fees for Rato when it happened — and he encouraged me to divulge the story then. Unfortunately, The Washington Note was still at the conceptual stage.
But here is some data I just came by that can’t help but make people scratch their heads wondering why these civil servants (and members of the media) feel entitled to such imperial levels of compensation.
Here are the compensation figures (about to be officially announced — but the information on Ridge, Thompson, Evans and Armitage is still pre-publication):
Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge
$40,000 for East Coast appearances
Former Health & Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson
$35,000 for East Coast appearances
Former Commerce Secretary Donald Evans
approximately $25,000 (still negotiations between Evans and his agents)
Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage*

*(TWN Note: Armitage is worth much more as he is the guy who really did stop a nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India about 90 minutes before the missiles began to fly. . .no joke)
Tom Brokaw
$60,000 for New York City appearances

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell
$100,000 plus first class expenses for two to include a Lear 60 Jet

Let me just be clear that bloggers, even those who are celebrities, fly cattle class and are lucky to get breakfast.
— Steve Clemons