A former investment banker says there's nothing wrong with giving paid speeches
John MacIntosh says it's delivering entertainment for a price
Editor’s Note: John MacIntosh was a partner at a leading global private equity firm, where he worked from 1994 to 2006 in New York, Tokyo and London. He now runs a nonprofit in New York. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
I had the pleasure of meeting your husband back in 2002 at the annual reception of a leading private equity firm. (I was the 30-something finance guy in the blue suit, medium height, medium build, brown hair, Ivy League grad. Maybe he mentioned me?)
I still recall how he shook my hand, chatted insightfully with our small group for a few minutes and then wowed us by recognizing the obscure arrangement the jazz quartet was playing (although I always suspected the musicians had been asked to play it for just that purpose). As I’m sure he told you, it was truly a remarkable evening.
Anyway, it’s ridiculous that the speeches-on-Wall-Street thing is becoming an issue for you in the primary so let me take the liberty of offering you some free campaign advice.
Folks just don’t seem to understand that money-for-speeches – while perhaps crass at times – is just good clean fun with no connection at all to the important issues of money in politics and the power of Wall Street. In fact, I think the whole thing would go from being a negative to a positive for your campaign if you made a few simple points:
It’s just show business. Every brand-name entertainer over 45 – singers, athletes, writers and politicians – cashes in one way or another because they have time on their hands yet still appeal to the well-heeled baby boomers who attend conferences, throw expensive parties and shell out for Vegas shows. The Wall Street firms who signed you up weren’t thinking about how they could increase their power and influence – they have K Street and “senior adviser” sinecures for that – they just thought you’d provide some good old-fashioned entertainment. (To tell you the truth, I would have preferred Keith Richards to your husband at that meeting in 2002, but I was not involved in the event planning, and he probably would have been too expensive anyway.)
Since you got paid for a service, there is no hint of corruption. Although the Supreme Court got it exactly backward in its Citizens United decision, the danger from corruption is greatest when there is no explicit quid pro quo. If you’d been paid for doing nothing, people could rightly suspect you’d feel some loyalty or future obligation to your paymasters. But you were paid to provide specific services as laid out in some very explicit contracts and you did it. Case closed.
Your earnings reflect admirable commercial instincts. Americans appreciate a candidate with business acumen. Your speech-related earnings reflect your appreciation for the market and your belief in capitalism. Not to have taken millions in low-hanging speaking fees from easy marks would have been positively un-American. Even socialists should appreciate the extra joy – remember “Ocean’s Eleven” – that you got taking money from people whom you may not particularly like. Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, you weren’t fraternizing with the enemy – you were picking his pocket!
You were just leaning in. While Bill was out making millions giving his speeches, were you supposed to stay back in Chappaqua knitting booties by the fire? What type of message would that send to hardworking women? And tell people that after your two terms as president, you plan to return to the speech circuit and command the same level of inflation-adjusted fees that male presidents have earned before you.
It was a lot of fun. This is an opportunity to show that you know how to have a good time. Admit that while it was sometimes a grind to speak with (generally) boring people – from investment bankers to clinical pathologists – it was also exhilarating to find ways to seem fresh and new week after week. (How does one inspire dentists one day and realtors the next?) Recount a humorous anecdote or two about parrying awkward marital questions from a bond trader who’d overindulged at the open bar.
You brought joy to others. Remind people that your audience was mostly those nameless professionals who huddle forgotten in the bottom 90% of the top 1%. The little people on the outside who, noses pressed to the glass, would otherwise never have had the chance to feel like insiders by shaking your hand and exchanging a few bon mots. Not rich enough to be courted as donors, not numerous enough to matter as voters, not powerful enough to be sought after for their influence, they are truly the unremarked forgotten of our political system. You should be proud to have a brought an hour or two of joy into their lives.
Don’t go negative. Even if all else fails, please resist the temptation to go negative. It’s true you made more in a good week than Bernie Sanders has saved in his entire life, and he probably could not compete on the lecture circuit if he tried. To some that makes him a loser and you a winner. But even in a silly political season when the candidate who throws the most insults appears to win, there is no need to overreact by following others into the gutter. This speech thing is a tempest in a teapot that will soon blow over (particularly if you release the text of your speeches to prove that there is no smoking gun).
Anyway, good luck in the election. You’re going to be a great president. But if it doesn’t work out, I hope you’ll get back out on the circuit so maybe we’ll have the chance to meet. A friend of mine saw you a few years ago and said you put on a great show. He still talks about it all the time.