In the Murky World of Big-Bucks Speeches, the Clintons Are More Transparent Than Most

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Hillary Clinton Addresses Watermark Silicon Valley Conference For Women
Hillary Clinton delivers a keynote address during the Watermark Silicon Valley Conference for Women on February 24, 2015 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)Photo: Justin Sullivan/2015 Getty Images

Bill and Hillary Clinton might have left the White House dead broke, but they certainly recovered quickly. The pair has generated tens of millions of dollars of income for themselves and their foundation since 2000, with much of it coming from paid speeches. Indeed, financial disclosure reports recently filed by the Clintons bump the total that they have ginned up in speaking fees to at least $130 million, with the price of a single speech frequently topping $300,000.

Those staggering figures have shined a bright light on the very big, very opaque market for corporate keynotes, addresses to universities, and gab sessions with trade associations. And interviews with the people who buy and sell those speeches — corporate event planners, industry experts, speakers themselves — helps to illuminate it further.

What they describe is a classic superstar economy where only the elite make real money, and the elitist of the elite — figures like Ben Bernanke and Bill Clinton — make astonishing sums. The trade is not just for the speech, either: It is for intimacy with and access to those individuals. For former politicians, paid speaking has become a preferred way to cash in on all those years spent in the administration and on the Hill while avoiding the stigma of an industry or lobbying gig.   

The paid-speaking market is actually two markets. There’s one for professional or semiprofessional paid speakers, the type who make in the hundreds or low thousands of dollars per event to give funny, uplifting, or insightful talks to local chambers of commerce or conferences about their adventures in starting a business or experiences overcoming cancer. The barriers to entry are nil, but it is more of a grind. These kinds of speakers often market themselves and use speaking as a way to advertise their other businesses. They produce demo reels. And while it might be a living, it’s often not a particularly lucrative one.

There’s keynoting, then there’s training, consulting, seminar-leading, facilitating, corporate coaching,” explained Stacy Tetschner, the chief executive officer of the National Speakers Association. “They’re using the spoken word and often the written word to create a business around their expertise. It’s often a second, third, or fourth career, and a lot of them are niche.”

Then there’s the celebrity speaker market — the one where deep-pocketed corporations, governments, and industry groups pay eye-watering sums to celebrities, athletes, writers, and politicians. This is the Bill Clinton market. It’s the Malcolm Gladwell market. It’s the David Beckham market.

The barriers to entry are high: a national profile, a New York Times best seller, an Olympic medal, appearance on top-ten lists. The gatekeepers and managers are generally big speakers bureaus, among them Harry Walker (which represents Kofi Annan, Bill Clinton, and Shaquille O’Neal) and the Washington Speakers Bureau (Tony Blair, George W. Bush, and, in the interest of full disclosure, my husband, Ezra Klein). The fees drift up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Clintons’ disclosures — compelled by Freedom of Information Act requests, required by a variety of federal laws, and made by the Clinton Foundation — help give a picture of what it looks like at the very tippy top of the market. Bill has made as much as $750,000 for a single talk, to Ericsson, the Swedish telecommunications company. He also made $700,000 apiece for two talks to a Nigerian newspaper, ThisDay. In comparison, George W. Bush’s fees are reportedly around $100,000.

Moreover, individuals of the Clintons’ stature make, and are granted, exacting accommodations by the people paying to hear them talk. Hillary, for instance, required “coffee, tea, room temp sparkling and still water, diet ginger ale, crudité, hummus and sliced fruit” when she spoke at the University of California, Los Angeles, according to details released in a FOIA request to the Washington Post. She also got use of a computer and had a medal presented to her in a box rather than being placed around her neck. The university was limited to only 50 posed grip-and-grin photographs. And the chair she would sit on for a question-and-answer session needed two rectangular back pillows. For this, the university paid $300,000.

This is not the norm. For most elite paid speakers, the fees are smaller and the deals more straightforward. Company X pays Speaker Y a given sum, a cut of which goes to his speaker’s bureau. He receives business or first-class plane tickets, a trip to and from the airport, and lodging in town. At the event, he might be expected to speak with small groups, dine with various executives, or glad-hand with administrators, as well as give a one-hour talk. That’s what’s common to most speaking arrangements, though not Hillary’s: The company or trade group or university is paying for access and intimacy as much as it is paying for the speech itself.

Take some of the reports trickling out from events with Bernanke, the former Fed chairman, who makes a reported $200,000 minimum an engagement. He’s done everything from give big keynotes to appear at small dinners with hedge-fund managers, describing how he sees the market. Bernanke “gave this stuff out, but I didn’t realize what he was saying at the time, so I didn’t do a great trade,” David Tepper of Appaloosa Management, who attended one of those small dinners, told the New York Times.  

It is worth noting here that nobody I spoke to wanted to talk on the record about these arrangements, and that there is little to no data on the size or shape of the broader paid-speaking trade. “There aren’t that many hard numbers in our profession,” Tetschner told me. “It’s hard to go to corporations and say, ‘What are you spending on speakers?’” What one event planner sees as a paid speaker another might see as a paid entertainer, consultant, or industry expert, he pointed out.

Both Harry Walker and the Washington Speakers Bureau politely declined to say anything, even on background, as did any number of speakers and the entities that buy those speeches up. Over the course of my reporting, I got 23 “no comments” or non-responses.

This illustrates another important facet of this economy: its secrecy. That’s a feature, not a bug, for the participants. It means that most entities paying for speakers need never worry about the sums they are spending coming out. It means that most speakers need never worry about their fire hose of additional income getting disclosed. It’s a way for, say, individuals who used to regulate a certain group of businesses to extract money from those businesses without anyone ever knowing. It’s a way for those businesses to extract time and information from those regulators without anyone ever knowing. And for that reason, for so many individuals in Washington, it has become a prized cash cow, a subtle, easy way to rack up an extra $50,000 or $500,000 or even $1.5 million a year, depending on how much time you want to spend in the airport.

That opacity has led to some raised eyebrows in Washington, particularly since the revelations about the Clintons came out. There’s obvious potential for conflicts of interest in these paid speaking gigs, particularly for individuals who reenter government after years as private citizens. Numerous companies have both paid one of the Clintons to speak, and lobbied her while she headed the State Department, for instance. Still, it seems worth noting that we know far less about how much figures like Dubya or Bernanke make, because their earnings do not fall subject to any public disclosure rules.

The only reason we know about the Clintons’ potential conflicts — and about the sums of money to be made on the uppermost rung of the paid-speaking market — is because the Clintons had to tell us.