By MARSHA MERCER
After he left the White House in 1953, former President Harry Truman complained that it cost $30,000 a year out of his own pocket to reply to all his mail and requests for speeches.
In those days, former presidents received a fond farewell but no federal pension, and speech-making wasn’t the gold mine it is today.
Congress had authorized pensions for retired federal workers and members of Congress (surprise!) but it had not approved federal aid for ex-presidents.
In 1912, industrialist Andrew Carnegie offered to pay former presidents $25,000 a year from the Carnegie Foundation of New York. Fortunately, that idea didn’t sit well with Congress or citizens. Imagine where we’d be if our presidents knew they’d be beholden to one outside group in their later years.
William Howard Taft, the only former president eligible, declined Carnegie’s offer. In his post-presidency, Taft was a law professor at Yale and became chief justice.
Truman’s financial woes finally led to the Former Presidents Act of 1958, which aimed to “maintain the dignity” of the presidency by providing pensions and benefits so former presidents wouldn’t have to take unsuitable employment, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
Today, besides an annual pension of $201,700, each former president gets funds for travel, office space, support staff and mailing privileges, Secret Service protection and other benefits.
“No current former president has claimed publically to have significant financial concerns,” Wendy Ginsberg wrote in “Former Presidents: Pensions, Office Allowances, and Other Federal Benefits,” issued this past April. Ginsberg, American national government analyst at CRS, wrote the 2014 and 2008 reports on presidential pensions.
Then along came Hillary Clinton. The likely 2016 presidential contender insisted the other day that she and her husband were “not only dead broke, but in debt” when they left the White House in January 2001.
“We had no money when we got there and we struggled to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages for houses, for Chelsea’s education. You know it was not easy,” she told Diane Sawyer of ABC News.
The Clintons have reportedly made vast sums talking since they left the White House: $5 million for Hillary Clinton’s speeches and more than $100 million for former President Bill Clinton’s.
“He's worked very hard, first of all, we had to pay off all our debts which was, you know, we had to make double the money because of obviously taxes…and get us houses and take care of family members,” Clinton said.
Her critics rightly pounced on her comments as tone deaf. But she is merely the latest presidential hopeful who inhabits a far different world than most voters. Most Americans struggle to pay their rent or mortgage – not to buy two multimillion-dollar mansions.
Clinton tried to “clarify” that she knows “how hard life is for so many people today.” That’s comforting.
She frequently says things “need to be put into context,” so let’s put “broke” into context.
Her financial disclosure forms, filed in 2000, show assets between $781,000 and almost $1.8 million, according to the Associated Press, which also reported between $2.3 million and $10.6 million in legal bills.
Still, the Clintons’ finances were hardly bleak. In December 2000, the month before they left 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Hillary Clinton signed a near-record book deal for $8 million with Simon & Schuster. The memoir, “Living History,” became a bestseller.
By 2004, the Clintons had paid off their debts, AP reported, and by 2009, the Clintons’ wealth was between $10 million and $50 million.
Even if Bill Clinton hadn’t made a fortune in speeches, he still would have had a cushy retirement after eight years in the top job. Between fiscal 2001 and this year, Clinton has received $15.9 million in pensions and benefits, the CRS reported.
His predecessor, former President George Herbert Walker Bush, has received about $14 million in pension and benefits since fiscal 2000, and former President George W. Bush has received about $7.1 million in pension benefits since he left office in 2009, CRS reported.
Even Richard Nixon received full pension benefits, despite resigning in disgrace during his second term. The Former Presidents Act didn’t envision such a scenario but the Justice Department ruled that Nixon was eligible for full benefits.
Hillary Clinton didn’t mention the presidential pension in her poor-Hillary recitation. To be sure, presidents earn their pensions. Nobody wants a former president to be “dead broke,” and fortunately they aren’t. For that, former presidents and their spouses can thank taxpayers.
© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.