Anyone else remember how liberals moaned that Ed Meese shouldn’t be confirmed to be attorney general back in 1986 because of the appearance of impropriety? In fact, the phrase really took off after some shmoe named Joe Biden lectured Meese that he “must avoid even the appearance of impropriety.” (Whatever happened to that guy, by the way?) If that was the standard, the Clintons should have been run out of Arkanstan around the same time.
Then there was the media’s tut-tutting of Ronald Reagan’s post-presidential speechmaking. The Los Angeles Times ran a major feature in 1990 on “Reagan’s Fall From Grace.” Why had he fallen from grace? He was making paid speeches before industry groups for as much as . . . $50,000! (Even adjusted for inflation, still way less than Clinton.) From the LA Times:
In a bit more than two hours, Reagan has earned his private-sector speech price of $50,000 (no charge to charities or schools), less a commission of about 20% to his lecture agents, Washington Speakers Bureau Inc. At sunny resorts from Palm Springs to the Bahamas, where he spent his birthday Feb. 6 as a luncheon speaker for Sara Lee Corp., Reagan does “a couple or three a month” of these unpublicized Fortune 500 appearances, Weinberg says. Reagan is grossing as much as $1.8 million a year from this source alone.
The charismatic role model for an era, Ronald Wilson Reagan made it not only acceptable but almost a moral imperative for Americans to go out and get their piece of the rock in the ’80s. Now he is going out and getting his in the less freebooting ’90s but encountering some severe buffeting to his popularity. . .
For the Great Communicator, whose standing plunged when he accepted the speaking honorarium from Japan’s Fujisankei communications conglomerate last October, the main impression to be overcome is that he has been inappropriately cashing in on his eight-year presidency.
At least Fujisankei wasn’t seeking State Department approval for a business deal. Actually, the New York Times reported at the time that Reagan turned down a bid of $5 million from another Japanese corporation to be the sponsor of his Japan speaking tour. Think Bubba would have passed up on that offer?
Even People magazine got in on the criticism:
But was it appropriate, critics asked, for a former President to cash in on his White House luster so blatantly? Of the four living ex-Presidents, Jimmy Carter seems to have done the least for financial gain, spending his time instead on church-, housing-and peace-related efforts. Richard Nixon has published seven books, but accepts no honoraria for public appearances. Gerald Ford has turned himself into a one-man industry, producing endorsements, speeches and public appearances and serving on corporate boards; last year alone he earned an estimated $1 million. All that, however, pales next to Reagan’s $2 million single score in Japan. Says Henry F. Graff, a Columbia University professor who specializes in the Presidency: “The founding fathers-Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison—would have been stunned that an occupant of the highest office in this land turned it into bucks.”
I’ll be stunned if People magazine runs a similar piece on the Clintons, and so far about the only academic who has stepped up to say anything like Prof. Graff here is Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig, who, bless his heart, sees corruption everywhere, but thinks the answer is still more government regulation of politics. (Sigh.)
I think we can safely say that liberal sensitivity to the appearance of impropriety has been retired. When it comes to the Clintons, I’ll settle for the impropriety of appearances.