05.20.11

Dubya's Quiet $15 Million Payday

George W. Bush said after bin Laden's killing that he wanted to stay out of the public eye. But Peter H. Stone says he's becoming a high-profile figure on the buck-raking circuit.

George W. Bush said after bin Laden’s killing that he wanted to stay out of the public eye. But Peter H. Stone of the Center for Public Integrity's iWatch News says 43's becoming a high-profile figure on the buck-raking circuit.

When George W. Bush declined President Obama’s invitation to a ceremony at New York’s ground zero after Osama bin Laden was killed, the former president cited his desire to keep a low public profile.

But Bush has been raising his profile in a different, and lucrative, way: He has raked in millions of dollars since leaving office by making scores of speeches that typically earn him six figures a pop.

In the week after Obama’s May 5 ground zero event, the 43rd president made time for three separate speeches to hedge-fund executives, a Swiss bank sanctioned for keeping secret bank accounts, and a pro golf event underwritten by the accounting firm involved in the Tyco International financial scandal.

Bush’s standard speaking fee is reportedly between $100,000 and $150,000.

David Sherzer, a spokesman for the former president, said that since Bush left office he has delivered nearly 140 paid talks, at home and abroad. Those speeches have earned Bush about $15 million, following in the golden path blazed by his predecessor, Bill Clinton.

Almost all of Bush’s speeches are closed to the press. Bush uses the Washington Speakers Bureau to arrange his paid speaking gigs.

To some presidential historians, Bush’s numerous high-priced speaking engagements don’t sit well. “I find it puzzling,” said Stanford University historian Robert Dallek. “He says he wants to keep a low profile. What is he doing except enriching himself? It sounds like it’s self-serving. It’s following the good old American adage to make as much as you can.”

Other historians say Bush’s ride on the lecture circuit has become somewhat commonplace for former presidents, but is still troubling.

“It’s one thing to stay out of the public realm, which George Bush has said he wants to do,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “But then he goes on the speaking circuit and makes enormous amounts of money giving lectures mostly to corporate groups and other select audiences. Some Americans can find this distasteful.”

Zelizer added: “We’re in an era where there are countless fears about money and politics. I think former presidents have to be careful about what they’re doing with their speeches. For some people it’s another version of the revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street.”

Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, and his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, also gave paid speeches. Reagan took heat for accepting $2 million for two speeches in Japan. But Bill Clinton took the ex-presidential lecture circuit to a new level. He earned $65 million in speaking fees from 2001 to 2009, according to a CNN review of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s financial disclosures. That included $7.5 million from 36 speeches in 2009 alone.

"I never had any money until I got out of the White House, you know, but I've done reasonably well since then," Clinton said at a forum in South Africa last year.

In one interview as he left the White House, Bush said he planned to “ replenish the ol’ coffers” by hitting the lecture circuit. Bush’s net worth at the time ranged between $6.5 million and $20 million, according to financial disclosure forms.

In a few cases, Clinton and Bush have made joint appearances. After Bush turned down Obama’s invitation, he flew to New York on May 9 to give a talk with Clinton to the wealth-management arm of UBS. The giant Swiss bank in 2009 cut a deal with the Justice Department to pay $780 million to settle a probe into tax evasion by thousands of its clients.

(Clinton also nixed a White House invitation to appear at ground zero, citing scheduling conflicts.)

Later that same week, Bush gave two speeches to groups that paid him handsomely. On Wednesday, May 11, Bush was in Las Vegas as the featured speaker at a giant hedge fund conference. Other prominent speakers included former Secretary of State Colin Powell and ex-Senator Chris Dodd. At the hedge-fund conference, Bush said he was “ not overjoyed” by news of bin Laden’s killing and said the hunt for the al Qaeda leader was conducted not “out of hatred, but to exact judgment.” The speech was closed to the media but a few reporters sneaked in to record the former president’s thoughts about bin Laden.

Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, and his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, also gave paid speeches. Reagan took heat for accepting $2 million for two speeches in Japan. But Bill Clinton took the ex-presidential lecture circuit to a new level.

And that Friday, May 13, Bush spoke in Florida at a Professional Golfers' Association event that was underwritten by the accounting giant Pricewaterhouse Coopers, the firm that several years ago paid $225 million to settle class-action suits related to its work for Tyco International.

Bush’s speaking invitations have taken him from the Far East to Canada and from New York to Texas. Overseas, Bush has delivered at least two speeches in Asia—one to the Boao Forum for Asia in China’s Hainan province, and another to the Federation of Korean Industries on Jeju Island off that country’s southern coast.

This year, the former oilman has talked to at least two energy conferences in Texas. One was sponsored by Hart Energy, an industry consulting firm, and the other by Cambridge Energy Research Associates, where he teamed up with Clinton again.

In mid-June, Bush is slated to be a featured speaker at the Edison Electric Institute meeting in Colorado Springs. Sherzer said that event is just one of a few dozen already booked for Bush this year.

Bush has been busy on other fronts. He has written a bestselling memoir, Decision Points, which has sold more than 3 million copies. And he has helped rope in more than $300 million for the George W. Bush Foundation, which supports his presidential center at Southern Methodist University in Texas.

After he was invited to join Obama at ground zero, Sherzer said Bush chose to remain out of the spotlight during his post-presidency. And his wife, Laura, told the Associated Press: “He’s made the real decision not to enter into politics or the public eye.”

And Sherzer notes Bush has made a commitment to speak pro bono at an event at ground zero this upcoming September 11, the 10th anniversary of the deadly al Qaeda attacks.

Peter H. Stone leads the money and politics team at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan investigative journalism group in Washington. Stone is the author of the recently released paperback Casino Jack and the United States of Money.