Column: Appearances do matter
WASHINGTON — Dear Secretary Clinton,
Actually, you have two money problems. The first is how you talk about it. The second is how you collect it — or, to be more precise, the fact that you’re still frenetically collecting it.
Let me be clear at the outset, the issue isn’t that you’re rich, or even that you and your husband became rich after leaving office. American voters don’t have a problem with wealthy candidates or even wealthy ex-presidents and ex-officials.
They have a problem with wealthy candidates who are whiny and/or defensive about their wealth; who are greedy and/or ostentatious in their acquisition and display thereof; or whose wealth makes them, or makes them appear to be, out of touch with the concerns of everyday people. Your difficulties, at the moment anyway, appear to be chiefly in the first two categories: defensiveness and greed.
These categories parallel my suggestion of twin money problems — talk and action. You must stop answering money questions in a way that makes matters worse!
Anyone, especially anyone who’s a little rusty on the interview circuit, can be forgiven for a single flub, as when you answered Diane Sawyer’s question about your family’s wealth by explaining that your family was “dead broke” when you left the White House, that your family “struggled to piece together the resources for mortgages for houses” — houses! — and that giving paid speeches was, anyway, less unseemly than signing up with a single firm.
You cleaned that up — but then you stepped in it again, during an interview with The Guardian, when asked how you could be a credible voice on income inequality.
The question might have been unfair in its stated assumption that voters see you as part of the problem, but your answer was a doozy. “But they don’t see me as part of the problem,” you replied, “because we pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well-off, not to name names; and we’ve done it through dint of hard work.”
OK, perhaps I should repeat myself, a little louder. YOU MUST STOP ANSWERING MONEY QUESTIONS IN A WAY THAT MAKES MATTERS WORSE!
Yes, it’s galling when certain people — perhaps you were referring to someone named Mitt Romney? — benefit from paying taxes at far lower rates than their secretaries. But the problem of income inequality is not merely a problem of differential tax rates.
And for goodness’ sake — truly well-off? hard work?(END ITAL) You’re truly well-off by anyone’s definition of the term. And hard work is the guys tearing up my roof right now. It’s not flying by private jet to pick up a check for $200,000 to stand at a podium for an hour.
When I said that you did not suffer from the problem of being out of touch with the concerns of everyday Americans, I meant that you have a long, admirable history of working to improve the lives of the poor and middle class.
Romney landed in trouble with his snide comments about the 47 percent who pay no income taxes — reinforcing concerns among voters that he did not care about them. You do not yet — emphasis on the yet — have that problem, but you could find yourself there.
Which gets me to the second set of issues: how you’re continuing to vacuum up the money, and the aura of greediness it exudes. Madam Secretary, enough already. This behavior borders on compulsion, like refugees who once were starved and now hoard food. You’re rich beyond your wildest imaginings! You don’t need any more! Just. Stop. Speaking. For. Pay.
In the midst of a book tour (and with the ample cushion of a multimillion-dollar advance), you don’t need to be hustling for another $200,000 or so from the United Fresh Produce Association and Food Marketing Institute. On the verge of a potential presidential bid, please feel free to say yes to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas if you want to speak there. But you don’t have to hit its foundation up for a $225,000 fee, even one you plan to donate to the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation.
Fix this now, or decide not to run. Then you can rake in the fees to your heart’s content.
Ruth Marcus’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.