Bill Clinton's Damaging Self-Defense
WASHINGTON -- Oh, Bill. There you go again. We knew you were going to pop off, but did it have to be so soon -- and so tone-deaf?
The Clinton deal is "two for the price of one," as Bill Clinton famously promised in 1992. But 23 years later, that bargain comes with different baggage attached.
Then it was the intimations of Hillary Clinton as co-president, Machiavelli in a pantsuit. Now -- and let us pause to appreciate the role reversal and the country's journey on issues of gender -- it is the awkward reality of running not only while married to an ex-president, but as a name partner in the sprawling entity of Clinton Inc.
Into this treacherous swamp strolls Bill Clinton, on an annual Clinton Foundation trip to Africa. His interview with NBC's Cynthia McFadden was vintage Clinton, with its air of injured dismissiveness about concerns over his assiduous fundraising and lucrative speechifying.
Will you continue to give speeches, McFadden asked? "Oh yeah," Clinton responded, as if the notion of calling a halt during his wife's presidential campaign were absurd. "I gotta pay our bills."
Oh. My. God.
As if the first $500,000 speech, or the 11th, were not enough. As if the former president had not raked in more than $100 million on the speaking circuit since leaving office. As if stopping would leave the Clintons huddled around the kitchen table, worrying over which bills to pay. Baby needs a new pair of Louboutins.
More self-justifying on the speaking fees:
-- Clinton takes 10 percent off the top of his income every year to give to his foundation. OK, that's admirable, but does it really explain the compulsive vacuuming of six-figure checks?
-- "It's the most independence I can get. If I had a business relationship with somebody, they would have a target on their back from the day they did business with me until the end." Translation: Trust me, it could be a lot sleazier.
-- "Over the last 15 years, I've taken almost no capital gains." This justification echoes Hillary Clinton's comments on the "dead broke" book tour. You can hear Bill and Hillary alone in Chappaqua, complaining about how they pay taxes at high, ordinary income rates, when every investment banker they know -- and they know a lot -- benefits from the carried interest loophole.
One problem with this defense is that it probably doesn't carry much weight with Hillary Clinton's "everyday" voters. What, they'd be offended about Bill Clinton's $500,000-a-pop speeches, but now that they know he didn't take advantage of lower capital gains rates, they're OK with it?
Another problem is that it's factually incorrect, unless you are in the mega-rich category in which paying close to $400,000 in capital-gains taxes is the equivalent of "almost no capital gains." That's what the Clintons paid just from 2000 to 2006, their last tax filings on record.
Then, there is the trademark Clintonian, vast-right-wing-conspiracy pity party. "There has been a very deliberate attempt to take the foundation down," Bill Clinton said. "And there's almost no new fact that's known now that wasn't known when she ran for president the first time."
Not true. There have been lots of new facts occasioned by the simultaneity of Hillary Clinton's service as secretary of state and the operations of Clinton Inc., both its charitable arm and its speech-making unit.
"We have never done anything knowingly inappropriate in terms of taking money to influence any kind of American government policy," Bill Clinton asserted. "Knowingly inappropriate" -- the 2016 version of Al Gore's "no controlling legal authority."
Indeed, Clinton's own defense refuted his no-new-fact argument. "We do our best to vet them," he said of speaking invitations. "And I have turned down a lot of them. If I think there's something wrong with it, I don't take it."
Oh well, then. If it's Clinton-vetted, the rest of us needn't bother.
Some important perspective here: None of this is remotely criminal. The efforts to compare the Clintons' behavior to that of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, convicted of taking bribes, or New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, indicted for the same, ignore the most important fact, or more specifically, the absence thereof: There is no evidence, none, of any official act related to these donations or speaking fees.
But not remotely criminal is vastly different from being smart politically. Hillary Clinton needs a better defense and, candidly, a better defender. Bill Clinton is a terrific explainer-in-chief. Just not when it comes to explaining his own behavior.
(c) 2015, Washington Post Writers Group