Behind a Bill Clinton Speaking Engagement

July 12, 2016

When former presidents and other dignitaries traveled to California to wax nostalgic on the speaking circuit, they may have been demanding, but none insisted on being flown from San Francisco by private jet to a venue just 70 miles down the freeway.

That was before Bill Clinton came along.

Clinton changed the rules of political speech-making for cash. He would push not just corporate hosts but also nonprofits and universities to pay fees well beyond what they were accustomed to. His aides would turn what had been a freewheeling format into tightly scripted events where every question from the audience was screened. He and Hillary Clinton would become so skilled at churning profits out of their lectures that they would net more than $150 million from speaking alone after he left the White House.

Contracts and internal emails connected to half a dozen speeches Clinton gave in the Bay Area soon after departing the White House offer a glimpse into the unusual demands and outsize expense reports associated with bringing him to town. The events took place as part of a speaker series sponsored by the Foothill Deanza Community College District, another by UC Davis and another run by a for-profit firm. The community college hosted him again in 2012. The documents became public through an open-records request filed by the Republican National Committee amid a presidential race in which the lucrative speaking fees paid to the Clintons are being closely examined.

They show a former president who deftly avoided discussing past scandals by refusing questions that were not screened by his staff in advance. There is the nearly $1,400 bill for a day’s worth of phone calls from San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel and the $700 dinner for two. And they also show that an agency representing Clinton continued to pursue a deal with an event host who emailed a racist remark about audiences and jokingly referred to the male aides Clinton traveled with as his mistresses.

Speechmaking is as politically charged as it is lucrative for the Clintons. Hillary Clinton’s refusal to disclose transcripts from speeches she gave to Goldman Sachs and other large corporations has become a campaign liability. Her husband’s collection of fees from corporations of as much as $750,000 for a single speech is a source of relentless charges of conflict of interest from critics.

By his advisors’ own admission, the former president pushed the limits of what could be charged for speeches when he entered the market in 2001.

Hillary Clinton would later say her family at that time was “dead broke” and deep in debt after years of attorneys’ fees related to impeachment and other Clinton controversies. The going rate for former presidents to deliver remarks in a public venue had been in the range of $60,000 per speech.

Event organizers in California were taken aback when Bill Clinton, freshly signed by the Harry Walker Agency, demanded double that amount. They assumed he would ultimately take the $60,000 they had paid to Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Jimmy Carter.

He wouldn’t. Bill Clinton collected $100,000 per speech for six events over the course of a week in November 2002. The newly disclosed records offer little insight into the role Clinton himself played in pushing the fees up and demanding unorthodox arrangements for expenses. The former president has been known to leave such money issues to his handlers, often remaining aloof to the day-to-day accounting details involved in the intertwined Clinton business and nonprofit empires.

The fee hardly entitled audiences to a candid interaction with the former president. The contract with the two events at a speaker series affiliated with Foothill-Deanza Community College District demanded all questions receive approval from Clinton’s staff.

“We wish we never had to give in to that,” said Richard Henning, who runs the series, which has hosted all but one former president since Gerald Ford. “He is the only person I can think of that required it. It has never happened before or since.”

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