So, on the same day that that double re-quote appeared online, April 25th, I was contacted by a reporter from the Washington Post, Krissah Thompson, and she did a phone interview with me on this subject. The article she wrote on the topic was published in the April 27th issue of the paper, as the lead article at the top of Section C:
And here's a closer look, but don't worry, I'll also post the text in easy to read form:
And of course you can also read the article, entitled The Obamas Face The Paid-Speaking Circuit—And All the Questions That Come With It, over on the Post's site, just by clicking on the old link. But should you decide to stick around, here's how the piece opens:
When Barack and Michelle Obama left the White House, they both spoke longingly of a break from life in the public eye. But following a months-long vacation, they have started to tap into the lucrative paid-speaking circuit that has enriched so many other former presidents and first ladies—with the potential to quickly net millions of dollars.
On Thursday, both made their first appearances as speakers-for-hire.
“Hi, everybody, it’s good to get out of the house,” said Michelle Obama, visibly relaxed, as she sat for a wide-ranging—but free of partisan politics—question-and-answer session before the American Institute of Architecture’s annual conference. Her husband, meanwhile, joined historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in New York for a closed-door address to employees of the A&E cable network.
It was not divulged how much they were paid for these first appearances. But the former president will collect $400,000 for a September speech to a health-care conference sponsored by investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald, Fox Business reported this week.
And after all, speaking at an American Institute of Architecture conference and to the A&E channel is not terribly controversial, but getting a big payoff from Wall Street investment firm Cantor Fitzgerald is another story altogether.
As newly minted high-dollar speakers, the Obamas follow a well-worn path from the White House—but one that poses risks to a personal and political brand rooted in their middle-class backgrounds.
Aides to the Obamas would not comment on how much they are charging for other private speaking engagements, but they defended the speaking schedule and pointed out that the president’s first public meeting was a conversation with college students in Chicago earlier this week.
“President Obama will deliver speeches from time to time. Some of those speeches will be paid, some will be unpaid, and regardless of venue or sponsor, President Obama will be true to his values, his vision and his record,” his senior adviser, Eric Schultz, said in a statement issued after the Cantor Fitzgerald speech drew a wave of criticism—including a New York Post headline that dubbed Obama “Wall Street’s new fat cat.”
The New York Post being a conservative paper, this shows how Obama's choice could be seen as playing into the right wing's hands, while on the left, critics would note the fact that as president, Obama failed to prosecute any of the banking executives whose greed led to the great recession that began in 2008, and that he spent his entire two terms trying to deal with.
But let's get back to the article, which provides a defense of Obama both in arguing that he's entitled to make some money, and that there's plenty of precedent for presidents doing so:
Schultz argued that Obama’s appearance at the health-care conference made sense: “As a president who successfully passed health insurance reform, it’s an issue of great importance to him.” As for a six-figure check signed by an investment bank, “I’d just point out that in 2008, Barack Obama raised more money from Wall Street than any candidate in history—and still went on to successfully pass and implement the toughest reforms on Wall Street since FDR.”
Other former first couples have been challenged on their paid speeches, which began in earnest when former president Gerald R. Ford hit the lecture circuit: He needed to make a living somehow, he said. Former president Ronald Reagan was roundly criticized when he followed suit, taking heat for accepting $2 million for two speeches in Japan.
So now it's time to hear from yours truly, and my comment refers to Reagan's speeches in Japan, not Obama, in case that's not clear:
“He was seen as a gung-ho patriotic American, and then the first thing he does is go speak to another country that was, in a sense, an economic rival,” said Lance Strate, a professor of communication at Fordham University. “They are entitled to make money, and nobody really bats an eyelash over the book deals they might get. But there’s something about speaking fees because it involves personal presence. As a former president, you’re still representing the country.”
So there I go again, and once again, let me emphasize the point about personal presence, and how that is much more significant than the specific speech itself, personal presence being on the level of relationship or medium, as opposed to content, in media ecological terms.
But anyway, I do get a little more in later, but at this point it's, and now this:
Richard Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who was chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, said that “as private citizens [the Obamas] are pretty much free to give speeches in their personal capacity,” but at a potential cost to their popularity and future political influence.
And let me interject here that this is in keeping with some of the balance theories of attitude change, which suggest, based on behavioral research, that when you have a source about whom folks have generally positive attitudes towards, and that source promotes something, a product, cause, or person, about whom folks have a negative or neutral attitude towards, the source will tend to succeed in improving their attitude towards whatever it is the source is promoting, which is the whole point of doing it, and what you would expect. But this comes at a cost, because doing so will reduce the positive attitude folks have towards the source, often as a delayed reaction, the effect being a kind of transfer of good will and feelings (or in effect selling a bit of the person's positive image).
So, anyway, back to the article now, as Thompson continues to refer to Painter:
His old boss did it, too. According to Robert Draper’s book “Dead Certain,” Bush said the lecture circuit would “replenish the ol’ coffers.” He was reportedly paid between $100,000 and $175,000 for each appearance.
Bill and Hillary Clinton similarly came under heavy criticism for their private speeches, which earned them more than $25 million for delivering 104 speeches over 15 months, and became an issue in her presidential campaigns.
“It’s not a question of whether it’s legal,” Painter said. “It’s a question of whether someone in a political environment can make an argument that it was unethical.”
And the consequences go beyond attitudes folks hold in regard to the former president and first lady:
Though neither of the Obamas seem to want to run for political office in the future, their calculations are complicated by the tenuous state of the Democratic Party, said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University.
“In a party that doesn’t really have especially captivating personalities right now, he remains a figurehead,” Zelizer said. “If he goes down the road of speaking for a lot of money, that has the potential to hurt the party.”
Julian is absolutely right on this point, and as I've said, it also makes it harder for Democrats to take the high moral ground in criticizing Republicans, although the Republicans have sunk so low over the past year that anything the Democrats do right now looks like up to most of us.
So, what now? Can there really be such a thing as a balance in respect to this sort of thing?
Obama seems to be attempting a balance between community-minded appearances and lucrative ones. His first paid event followed a public one Monday at the University of Chicago on civic engagement—typical, his spokesman said, of the topics he wants to discuss in the future.
“He wants to get together with young people and other community leaders who are front of mind to him and get ideas from them on how to create solutions for their communities and also partnering with other organizations that are making it a priority to bring resources to communities in need,” said his press secretary, Kevin Lewis.
Up next: a speech next month in Boston, where he will receive the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, and trips to Berlin to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italy for the Global Food Innovation Summit.
As for Michelle Obama, she will speak next month at the Partnership for a Healthier America, which supported her White House anti-obesity initiatives, and join MTV for a “College Signing Day” encouraging high school students to pursue higher education.
Both Obamas are represented on the speaking circuit by the Harry Walker Agency, which also reps Richard B. Cheney, Al Gore and former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan.
So, anyway, I did get another comment included in the article, this one in reference to Michelle Obama, whose choices I believe were much more prudent than her husband's:
Strate said Michelle Obama’s first appearance seemed like a shrewd choice. Architecture “is not terribly controversial. It is something that has both a practical and an artistic element to it,” he said.
By the way, I believe that over across the Atlantic, in Great Britain, Prince Charles made architecture one of this main interests many years ago. Of course, there are some significant differences in motivation:
Onstage in Orlando, the former first lady said she chose the AIA gathering in part because of her early-career work in economic development for the city of Chicago.
“I got to know how important architects are in the lifeblood and beauty of any city, particularly a city like Chicago. . . . So [this] seemed like a good place to get started,” she said. “It’s like coming almost full circle for me.”
She spoke with authority about her experience as a lawyer and executive—topics she often seemed reluctant to address in her husband’s administration. She also seemed to be keeping up with the political news, making indirect comments, in a discussion of the challenges facing cities, that seemed to address President Trump’s proposal for overhauling the nation’s tax code.
“We have to invest,” she said, “which means we have to pay taxes.”
In another oblique reference, she shared a story about her emotional final day at the White House. Her daughters were in tears as they said goodbye to the staff, and she felt herself choke up, too — but she resolved to keep her emotions hidden before the Inauguration Day cameras.
“I didn’t want to have tears in my eyes because people would swear I was crying because of the new president,” she said, as the crowd laughed.
And who could blame her? Anyway, as I indicated, the article began on the front page of section C, and it continued on the third page:
And that's how the article ends, not with a bang, but with a bit of laughter. As I mentioned earlier, my interview with Thompson, who by the way was delightful to talk to, was by way of a telephone conversation (remember those?), so I don't have a record of all that I said, but I think you've got the main talking points here, and in my previous posts on the subject.
And in bringing my 3-part series to a close, let me end by noting that, much like the web and hypertext more generally, I think you can see how following this trail of quotes, re-quotes, and new quotes represents a pattern of networked connections, which is the shape of much of our interactions, especially in the electronic media environment.