Skip to Content

Long life

The profitable delusion shared by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair

What they've gained in wealth, they've lost in credibility. And they've gained a lot of wealth

Tony Blair and Bill Clinton must be very happy about how they have fared since leaving political office, for each has since become enormously rich. Tony Blair may well be the richest British prime minister since the 14th Earl of Derby in the 19th century, and Bill Clinton is among the ten richest American presidents ever (richer even, it is said, than President Kennedy) — not bad for the child of a junior tax inspector in Edinburgh and for one from a poor and dysfunctional family in Hope, Arkansas. But to temper our envy we may note that what they have gained in wealth they have been losing in reputation.

This is especially true of Blair, whose permatan, chartered private jet, and ‘good body’ so creepily admired by Wendi Deng would make him impossible to take seriously even if he hadn’t messed up over Iraq. And the sense that he is some kind of alien is strengthened by his consultancy deals with such countries as Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Abu Dhabi. He may now be worth some £70 million, but at the cost of losing all credibility as an elder statesman of the British Labour party.

Although Blair can astonishingly earn as much as £250,000 a time for private speeches and appearances, his consultancies provide far the greatest part of his income. Clinton, on the other hand, has made his fortune almost entirely from speech-making. The Washington Post reports that for 542 speeches made around the world between January 2001 and January 2013 Clinton has been paid $104.9 million (about £62 million). Though anyone would obviously rather hear a speech by Clinton than one by Blair, it seems incredible that even the great charmer himself should be in perpetual demand as a speaker for such enormous fees. It is a symptom of the celebrity culture that Clinton, like a Hollywood star, is wanted at almost any price.

The impression of excessive greed created by this frantic moneymaking has put these lifelong advocates of social justice on the defensive, so they both have charitable foundations to which part of their earnings goes and regularly insist that unlike really rich people (as if they weren’t really rich themselves) they pay all the taxes expected of them. But this doesn’t completely convince anyone, partly because of the unsavoury nature of some of their paymasters and partly because they still look greedy. This might not affect Clinton’s standing very much, given that Americans are more supportive than we are of the pursuit of wealth, were it not for the fact that his wife, Hillary, is hoping to be the next president of the United States. And she is in the same game as her husband, being currently even more in demand than he is as an expensive speech-maker.

For a standard fee of at least $200,000, Hillary doesn’t seem excessively fastidious about whom she will address. And she has provoked a great deal of irritation by the way she has talked about her new wealth. Last month she told ABC News that she and Bill had come out of the White House ‘not only dead broke, but in debt’, that they had struggled to get the mortgages they needed ‘for houses’ (note the plural), and that they had achieved it all by very hard work. Then she said much the same in an interview with the Guardian as part of the promotion of her new book for which she had received a multimillion-dollar advance.

This prompted the Washington Post’s political columnist, Ruth Marcus, to write her an open letter last week urging her to stop whining and being defensive about her wealth or to abandon her attempt to be America’s next president. Americans, she said, didn’t ‘have a problem with wealthy candidates or even wealthy ex-presidents and ex-officials’, but they did have a problem with ‘defensiveness and greed’. ‘You are truly well-off by anyone’s definition of the term,’ she wrote. ‘And hard work is the guys tearing up my roof right now. It’s not flying by private jet to pick up a cheque for $200,000 to stand at a podium for an hour.’

Blair and Clinton were once the great advocates of something called the Third Way, which I never completely understood, but which seemed to promote the idea that, however left-wing you were supposed to be, it was perfectly all right to make money hand over fist, provided you remembered poor people in your policies. They seem to have become victims of this delusion.

Show comments