When Did American Politicians Begin to Cash in on Their Fame?

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Erik Moshe is a Features Editor of HNN, and an Air Force veteran. Visit his website

He became the first ex-president to charge tens of thousands of dollars for speeches. 

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has been criticized for delivering paid university speeches since leaving her post as secretary of state in February 2013, earning up to six-figure paychecks for each appearance. Since he left office former President George W. Bush has been earning up to $150,000 a speech. Bush famously said as he exited office that he needed to fill the family coffers. This raises the question: Just when did leading politicians begin to cash in on their fame by talking? (And for good measure, we should ask, how many have cashed in by writing books?)

Gerald Ford is credited with being the first ex-president to "sell the presidency." Within a year of leaving office, he made a substantial amount of money from paid speeches.

The historical evolution of paid speeches in the United States dates back to the nineteenth century when Americans discovered the usefulness of public lectures, as historian Donald M. Scott reported in 1980 in the Journal of American History:

Americans of the mid-nineteenth century were untiring inventors of cultural and educational institutions. Among the most ubiquitous and important of the agencies they devised to satisfy their seemingly insatiable craving for 'useful knowledge' was the public lecture, a form of instruction distinguished from the sermon, the speech, and oration as well as from the treatise or essay, though it borrowed from them all. It would be difficult to exaggerate the scale and scope of public lecturing. In New York City there were more than 3,000 advertised lectures between 1840 and 1860, and in 1846 the citizens of Boston could choose from twenty-six different 'courses' of lectures. But the lecture was not simply a phenomenon of the large cities. By the early 1840s there probably were between 3,500 and 4,000 communities that contained a society sponsoring public lectures.

But when did politicians begin to be paid for lectures? Here are some notable examples, starting with former presidents, and finishing with other prominent figures throughout the timeline of American history.

Former Heads of State

For nearly ten years, during his post-presidency, Rutherford Hayes traveled around the country speaking on policy reform topics. He, however, was apparently not compensated, according to the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center. An archivist concluded that there were no notes or diary entries about Hayes being paid for any of those speeches.

But the times they were a changing. Our very next president, Benjamin Harrison, who returned to his Indianapolis law practice after leaving office, delivered a paid lecture series at Stanford University in 1894, where for a time he held a position as a visiting professor, according to Charles W. Calhoun, the author of Benjamin Harrison, a 2005 biography of the 23rd president.

By then it was becoming accepted practice for politicians to deliver paid speeches apparently. But Ryan S. Walters reports in The Last Jeffersonian: Grover Cleveland and the Path to Restoring the Republic that Cleveland declined to give speeches of any kind after his departure from the White House. Though "the popular former president was asked to speak on behalf of Democratic candidates … he was simply not up to the task, mostly because such an undertaking would take up time he wanted to devote to work and family—not to mention that fact that he didn't particularly like making public speeches. His letters of regret were usually lighthearted. ‘There are very few things I would not do for you and the others for whom you speak,' he wrote to Governor William E. Russell of Massachusetts. 'I want to avoid all the speechmaking possible, for in the first place I do not think I am any good at it, and secondly, during my vacation I am such a vagabond and lazy good-for-nothing that I find any mental exercise a great effort.’ ”

To another friend he wrote that he was “in a miserable condition,” and that he was a “private citizen without political ambition trying to do private work and yet pulled and hauled and opportuned daily and hourly to do things in a public and a semi-public way which are hard and distasteful to me.” The flood of requests he received was “as wearing and perplexing as it was to refuse applications for the office at Washington.” To Cleveland, ex-presidents were simply private citizens and should remain as such.

Theodore Roosevelt didn't charge for speeches, but he did arrange a contract with the publisher Charles Scribner's Son's to write a series of articles and a book about his expedition to Africa and Europe for a "hefty sum of 50,000." Adjusted for inflation it would be a 1.2 million dollar book deal today.

The next president to make money from a book was Calvin Coolidge, whose autobiography became a bestseller, which was ironic given his reputation as Silent Cal.

An archivist from the Hoover Public Library assured me that he was stone-cold-certain that both Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman “didn't make a dime” off of post-presidential speeches. The archivist also mentioned jokingly that "of course John Kennedy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn't make any money either, unless they were speaking from a Ouija board."

Truman in particular once said that he would never lend himself "to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency."

Dwight Eisenhower made some money from speaking fees and a substantial amount from his memoirs, which sold well, and helped establish the expectation that former presidents would pen a memoir.

In his famous Checkers Speech Richard Nixon noted "I have made an average of approximately 1500 dollars a year from nonpolitical speaking engagements and lectures." He made a lot more later. Following the end of his presidency, he was paid $600,000 for his interview with David Frost.

Then there’s Gerald Ford. In 1977, the year after he left the presidency he collected $25,000 per speech. Jimmy Carter commands an average of $50-$75,000 for his speeches about democracy, peace and diplomatic relations, particularly in underdeveloped countries.

Ronald Reagan once said, "I think unless someone's got inherited wealth, they should be willing to earn a living outside," in defense of his series of speaking engagements in Japan in the late eighties. His wife, Nancy Reagan, made a few speeches at $30,000 apiece to non-charity groups.

A 1990 article by Martin Kasindorf featured in the LA Times sheds more light on Reagan's speaking engagements, post-politics:

Reagan asked Disneyland to pay his $50,000 fee for an appearance at the amusement park's 35th anniversary celebration, then surprised many who had considered his Administration stingy toward AIDS research by donating the money to the Pediatric AIDS Foundation in Santa Monica.

"It's been important for a Republican President to make money on a par with his wealthy friends," says Erwin Hargrove, a Vanderbilt University political scientist and author of a 1988 study of Carter's presidency. "That's been true for Ike, Ford and now Reagan. They not only feel inferior to the businessmen they socialize with, they admire these guys.”

Duke University presidential scholar James David Barber was less sympathetic. “He's using public service for making bucks. The role of an ex-President is to be a hero for the youth of the nation, to bring out the duty that every citizen has to serve the nation. Has he no sense of having been benefited? Having the power of the country means you have to do something for the country later on."

Other Politicians

On July 4, 1844, nineteen years after James Monroe's term as 7th President of the United States, another politician with the same name, James Monroe, was invited to attend an anti-slavery convention in Brownshelm, Ohio so they could hear him speak. Monroe accepted, and after this speech, Monroe's charisma and skills were recognized throughout the town, as well as Northern Ohio. Subsequently, he was sought after by other towns throughout the state, whose inhabitants all wanted to hear the abolitionist politician's take on things. Catherine M. Rokicky noted in a 2002 biography of Monroe that these engagements allowed Monroe to continue his reform work and also to earn money, which helped support his college studies.

A decade removed from office as vice president under Ulysses S. Grant, Schuyler Colfax, who got caught up in the Credit Mobilier scandal, was widely sought after as a public speaker. After hearing him give a lecture in South Bend, Indiana, to an audience of over a hundred, his son threw his arms around his father's neck and exclaimed: "Oh papa, it was as good as the minstrels!" Colfax considered this as high a compliment as he ever received. In January, 1884, he wrote: "My season is so crowded I had to lecture five times this week in Missouri—large and enthusiastic audiences, and four hundred dollars."

After his retirement as vice president under James Buchanan, John C. Breckinridge made investments in several railroad lines. He actively promoted railroad interests by speaking at charter meetings and serving on committees.

Free of political obligations, nineteenth century Secretary of State Edward Everett traveled the country with his family as he made public speeches. One cause he took up was the preservation of George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon. On tours across the country in the mid-1850s he raved about Washington, comparing him favorably to Frederick the Great and the Duke of Marlborough. But he didn’t cash in. Not only did Everett donate the proceeds from these speeches, which amounted to about $70,000, he also refused compensation for his travel expenses.

Thomas R. Marshall, who was vice president under Woodrow Wilson, remained a popular public speaker after leaving politics, and continued to travel to give speeches. The last he delivered was to high school students in the town of his birth.

Although he no longer held office, Truman Vice President Alben W. Barkley remained a visible public figure. He signed a contract with the National Broadcasting Company to do twenty-six segments of his own television show, "Meet the Veep" (which aired when he no longer actually was veep). The fifteen minute weekly broadcasts gave Barkley a chance to comment on national events and display his wit in a Mrs. Doubtfire-esque living room setting. After the contract ended, he returned to his home state of Kentucky, and continued to be a sought-after speaker. Rarely a week went by that he did not travel to talk to one group or another. Barkley died while delivering a keynote speech to students at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.

As a freshman at the University of Oklahoma, Carl Albert, the eventual 46th Speaker of the House of Representatives, won the National Oratorical Contest. His speech, which was about the Constitution, netted him $1,500 in cash and a trip to Hawaii. While there, his friends arranged for him to give a speech in front of several civic groups. One audience included the president of the Dole Pineapple Company, who was so impressed by Albert that he offered him two thousand dollars if he would give it four more times over the next few weeks. Following his retirement, Albert made speeches across the U.S. and overseas, but whether he charged is unknown.

In Summary

George Washington's annual salary as President was $25,000, and despite his unease with the compensation, he complained that his pay was not sufficient to cover the expenses of his household. At times he paid expenses for the White House operation out of his own pocket. Had the idea been borne of giving speeches for a fee, could Washington have undertaken a role as an "oval office emcee" post-presidency? Could he have bought a new shiny pair of wooden molars with those funds, or a fresh pair of the latest fashionable shoes? We will never know.*

*Actually, he didn’t have wooden teeth. You can chalk that up to a myth peddled by the British to discredit him during the Revolution.


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