On Wednesday, ABC news reported that George W. Bush earned $100,000 from a 2012 speech. He also charged $20,000 for a private jet to the event.
As nauseating as that figure is – plus another $50,000 for a previous Laura Bush speech – the news has earned more attention because of the audience the Bushes had. That would be Helping a Hero, a controversy-dogged nonprofit which helps severely injured veterans from the War on Terror afford disability-accessible houses, attend family counseling, and generally get back into the swing of life at home.
Even among folks who think that ex-politicians raking in millions of dollars from speeches is acceptable, W. charging such a hefty fee to speak in front of people he sent to war rankles. This is good. Even a small dose of shame is good for Bush, and for any other ex-politician who happily earns a tidy profit based on their blood-soaked reputation.
Soldiers aren’t overjoyed either. ABC quoted Eddie Wright, a wounded veteran who briefly worked with Helping a Hero, as saying “For [Bush] to be paid to raise money for veterans that were wounded in combat under his orders, I don’t think that’s right.” A former spokesperson for the charity countered that Bush had given them a discount on his usual fee, but Politico’s research suggests that that’s not true. Helping a Hero also excused the high prices by saying that W. and Laura Bush had participated in fundraising efforts for them before. So this is what? A way of paying them back? Breaking even? It still doesn’t seem very charitable.
This is the life of an ex-politician. No matter how much of a cute old cowboy W. appears to be; No matter that he spends more time painting pictures of the Dalai Lama than he does interfering in world affairs these days, he also happens to have earned some $15 million from speaking engagements just between 2009 and 2011. This pales in comparison to heavy hitters like Bill and Hillary Clinton who have earned upwards of $100 million from speeches. Bush’s numbers are still unnervingly high for someone who deserves a prison cell. (Though Clinton has enough Iraqi blood on his hands to stew next door.)
Other hawks earn a grand living. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has received $150,000 from a speech at the University of Minnesota. Ex-Veep Dick Cheney requests a comparably modest $75,000 in order to stand in front of a crowd and be confident about his life choices. (For partisan schadenfreude points, please note that that’s equal to what professional daughter in chief Chelsea Clinton gets. Unfortunately, that just goes into the Clinton Foundation, so it’s the same as paying any Clinton.)
As I wrote last year in a column about torture, I never used to understand the concept of jailing Bush, Cheney, or the rest of the architects of the Iraq War until I read Glenn Greenwald’s Liberty and Justice for Some. It’s not just about a desire to hurt people who have hurt millions, it’s simply a desire to have some kind of disincentive for politicians to continue their dangerous, damaging, authoritarian adventures. And as Greenwald noted, Gerald Ford’s words about pardoning Richard Nixon and moving on as a nation were eerily repeated once Barack Obama took to the presidential podium to promise never to prosecute anyone in the Bush administration for torture or war crimes. Power doesn’t tie its own hands. Partially because those hands need to be free to accept dollar bills once out of office.
Obviously, any company or group or even a charity can pay however much money they think is worthwhile to have an ex-politician speak. Compared to the hideous consequences of politics, earning even scores of millions of dollars for talking seems downright banal. But it doesn’t work that way. Cronyism is a blurred line and a revolving door. W. may be done with politics, but his brother’s SuperPAC just raised $114 million. And the Clintons are fighting their to way back to the White House with their millions earned from speaking and from their dubious foundation.
There’s no shame in delivering a product for which people want to pay. A speech can qualify as that. But even to the supporters of George W. Bush, or to the supporters of the Iraq War (if there are any left) W.’s lack of self-awareness should teach a message. This is how little the man who sent these soldiers to be maimed thinks of them. His speaking in front of them is bad enough, but he should have at least had the decency to do it for free. (Apparently former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates did just that, which is better PR.)
We may not be able to stop wars or jail politicians, but we should certainly stop paying parasites staggering sums to puff themselves up in front of crowds. Four or eight years subsidizing them while they sat in office was more than enough. Ask the soldiers without limbs about that. Or better yet, ask an Iraqi citizen.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.