The Billary Problem

Whether Hillary Clinton has really “set [her] ego aside for world peace, world stability and for the good of the country”, as Senator Barbara Boxer suggested during Mrs Clinton’s confirmation hearing yesterday, is not for us to say. But we are pleased that her appointment as President Barack Obama’s Secretary of State will not mean the end of her husband’s philanthropic activities, as had seemed possible at one time.

Many people worry that the existence of the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, both of which we write about in the book, create a serious conflict of interest for the new Secretary of State. “The foundation exists as a temptation to any foreign entity or government that believes it can curry favor though a donation,” complained Republican senator Dick Lugar.

In an extensive article yesterday (subscription may be required), the Wall Street Journal went even further, claiming that the deal hammered out between the Clintons and the Obama transition team, which required greater transparency about charitable donations, was not tough enough on the former president. Indeed, transparency seems to have only added to the Journal‘s fury, the release of a list of donors in December under the deal prompting it to write: “Here is the spectacle of a former President circling the globe to raise at least $492 million over 10 years for his foundation – much of it from assorted rogues, dictators and favor-seekers. We are supposed to believe that none of this – and none of his future fund-raising – will have any influence on Mrs. Clinton’s conduct as Secretary of State.” It concludes that “it’d be nice to think Mr. Clinton would forswear this money-hustle while his wife is Secretary of State, but that self-sacrifice would belie his entire career.” Ouch!

Oddly, the Journal seems to regard money donated via the Clinton philanthropies as essentially the same as money going into the former president’s personal bank account. It likens his donors to “clients” of Henry Kissinger’s consultancy, in an earlier controversy. Even the most cynical observer of the Clintons – or of philanthropy – would surely concede that there is some difference between the two cash flows.

Even if the Journal is right that some of the donors to the Clinton philanthropic efforts are not the sort of people you would trust with your children’s sweets, it is not clear how getting these Friends of Bill to give back is a bad thing. On the contrary, perhaps it will help them on the path to personal redemption.

But the more important points are these: First, transparency (even the somewhat imperfect version now being implemented) should deal with the conflict of interest problem. If anything, it should ensure that any gift makes it harder for Mrs Clinton to favour the donor, not easier, given the inevitable scrutiny it will get.

Second, the useful debate to have is not who is giving, or even how much, but whether it is making a difference. Whilst it is early days, and many of the projects trumpeted at their outset at the Clinton Global Initiative need thorough impact analysis, there is already plenty of evidence that Mr Clinton’s efforts are making a difference, especially in parts of the world where need is great and America’s image could do with a polish. Indeed, as we have argued before, working in partnership with effective philanthropy, including (providing it is transparent) her husband’s, could play a crucial role in ensuring that what Mrs Clinton calls her “smart power” strategy really is smart.