If the presidency is worth so much after one leaves the White House, why is it worth so little during time in office when the occupant has the active management of the largest corporation in the world? That rate, $400,000 annually, is so low for the immense responsibility as to be embarrassing if not insulting.
During his years in the Oval Office and long service as governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton was a modestly paid public servant, dependent in Little Rock on his wife’s law practice and fairly generous non-cash perks provided by the state’s taxpayers to make ends meet. But in the eight years since he left the Oval Office here, we now know, with Sen. Hillary Clinton’s release of their income taxes, that the power couple amassed more than $109 million from book royalties, speeches and investments, putting them among the wealthiest politicians historically.
There’s nothing wrong with that. After all, going from rags, so to speak, to riches is the American way. And the Clintons paid about $33 million in taxes and gave another $10 million or so to charity, which alone mutes some of the criticism of their financial endeavors.
Gone is the time when a dying U. S. Grant had to struggle in pain to write his memoirs just to keep his family afloat or a financially strapped Harry Truman moved back to his late mother-in-law’s home in Missouri. The nation now takes care of its former presidents with staff, protection and a pension as it should.
All this begs the question as to why the salary for this most important and demanding of all jobs is not even close to what CEOs of major corporations are paid. (One hesitates to use “earned” here when their company results frequently don’t reflect such generosity). Total compensation, for instance, for the president of American Express was $50.1 million last year and the head of Tyson’s food in Clinton’s home state was paid $15.3 million, according to recent news reports. The list of big-time CEO compensation packages is eye popping not to mention the millions of dollars paid annually to a slew of barely post pubescent basketball players.
But Americans seem to think that occupying a public office is enough reward and that those who conduct their business from the city hall to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. should do so willingly and sacrificially. Yet at the same time they want those “servants” to be highly qualified, scrupulously honest and utterly dedicated even if their families have a hard time because of all the demands of office for which they aren’t compensated. Is it any wonder that those who should run can’t afford to? Perhaps if the pay scale were better the quality of office holder would be higher but also the vulnerability to scandals much lower.
Will Rogers said that Congress is the best money can buy and he wasn’t talking about legitimate compensation. Even earlier another humorist, Kin Hubbard, remarked that, “now and then an honest man gets sent to . . . the legislature.” So to combat the appearance that they might be interested in compensation commensurate with their responsibilities and certainly not more than that earned by their poorer constituents, lawmakers hesitate to give themselves a raise year after year. That means others in government, no matter how important the job, including the presidency, fail to get paid what they should because Congress controls the purse strings.
When asked by a reporter once what he was paying his top aides, Lyndon Johnson replied as only he could that he held the highest office in this land, was the leader for the free world, commander in chief of the greatest military machine ever assembled and “you ask me a chicken (expletive) question like that?” His point was well taken.
Considering the awesome responsibilities of the office and the toll they take on the occupant no manner of compensation is probably enough. Few of those who hold the job come away physically unscathed. The office ages one dramatically. The longer one stays in it, the more debilitating the consequences. Johnson died well before his time shortly after leaving the White House. Clinton has had heart surgery at a relatively young age. Certainly, the pay for such an assignment should more adequately match the level of stress.
An annual rate of seven figures would not be too much. Why should presidents be worth so much more out of office?
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)