By Kathleen Parker
Washington Post Writers Group
It had a familiar ring: "I don't ever know what people's motives are," said former President Bill Clinton, prompting one to pause and consider just what the definition of "motives" is.
Indeed, one doesn't ever know. But when a country or a firm gives large sums of money to a charity founded by a former U.S. president, whose wife happens to be secretary of state, and whose department may be considering business related to said donor, then one would not likely infer purely altruistic motives.
The former president's remarks were made during a recent interview with CNN's Jake Tapper, during which he was asked about some of the donations that have come into question since Hillary Clinton announced her presidential run.
Were some donors perhaps trying to curry favor with the then-secretary of state? This was the thesis of the recent book, Clinton Cash, by Peter Schweizer, which has made conservative rounds in recent weeks. Whether there's anything shady to the fees — beyond the sheer, extravagant greed — remains unclear. It could also be nonexistent, but let's review.
Schweizer found that Bill Clinton's fees increased significantly from his $100,000-200,000 per engagement shortly after leaving office to several above $500,000 and at least one at $750,000. Eleven of the 13 speeches for which he was paid over half a million were during his wife's tenure at the State Department.
Bill Clinton is no silver-tongued devil. His words drip with gold, apparently. Be that as it may, it seems a stretch that a $550,000 speaking fee to Clinton in China was connected to the Obama administration's Asia pivot, as some conservative outlets have suggested. Even so, Caesar's wife, who must always be above suspicion, was not well served by this and other financial exchanges that have come to light.
Disclaimer: No one denies that the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation has done much good in the world, from fighting AIDS in Africa to rehabilitating Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake. There's no requirement that public officials use their status to improve the world, and Bill Clinton found a way both to better the lives of others and enrich himself.
A fine and compassionate capitalist is he.
Still, any urchin who ever helped a princess step across a puddle understands that rewards accrue to those who play nice with the powerful. Some may call this politics, others influence-peddling. The difference doubtless lies in a definition somewhere, but one thing is clear: Making a foundation contribution — or paying the secretary of state's husband to say a few words — is a good investment.
In his response during the CNN interview, Clinton said people donated to the foundation because they wanted to help, citing Haiti as an example. But not all cases are so straightforward. The New York Times explored an example that seems at least quid-pro-quo-ish. You'll need a dot-connecting app for this.
Around the same time an interagency committee that included Hillary Clinton's State Department was reviewing the sale of a uranium mining company, Uranium One, to a Russian firm, the Clinton Foundation received millions in donations from people with ties to the mining company's chairman.
Then, "shortly after the Russians announced their intention to acquire a majority stake in Uranium One, Mr. Clinton received $500,000 for a Moscow speech from a Russian investment bank with links to the Kremlin that was promoting Uranium One stock," according to the Times.
This isn't an obvious case of influence massaging, but nor does it seem necessary to say, "Follow the money."
Such complex relationships involving Hillary Clinton, her family's charitable foundation, hundreds of millions in fees and donations, a former president, a secretary of state and a possible next-president — all embodied in just two people who happen to be married to each other — are certainly enough to attract a reporter's attention and a voter's skepticism.
Never mind the 30,000 emails Hillary Clinton deleted from the personal server she used while leading the State Department.
With only Bill Clinton responding to questions — and polls showing Clinton's trustworthiness in decline — Democrats have cause for concern. Yet again, it seems that Bill Clinton only makes things worse when he tries to help his wife.
"Has anybody proved that we did anything objectionable?" he asked during a recent Bloomberg News interview.
Well, no, but citing an absence of proof is an odd way of asserting one's ethical purity. It sounds perhaps too defensive — and is legal-speak by someone who knows how to operate just inside the margins of error.
Reach Kathleen Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org.