We haven’t learned much new about Hillary Clinton on her book tour except that she mistakes herself for a version of Norma Rae.
First, during an interview in her well-appointed Washington, D.C., home with ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer, she said she and Bill left the White House “dead broke,” although they always made better potential subjects for “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” than “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”
Next, in an interview with The Guardian, she seemed to suggest that she and Bill aren’t among the “truly well off,” and said that no one could possibly resent their wealth since they earned it “through dint of hard work.”
And so they did — the hard work of building political careers for themselves, and then, when the time came, profiting massively off them. As Hillary put it in her walk-back of the “dead broke” remark, she and Bill had different “phases” in their lives. One phase involved climbing into the White House and incurring stupendous legal bills in fending off various scandals. The other has involved getting showered with money.
Most people can’t understand the nature of the hard work with which the Clintons are constantly building their fortune.
They don’t know what it’s like to write a calculatedly tedious book for an almost $14 million advance.
They don’t know what it’s like to get up every morning and take a private jet to an event where adoring fans line up for a book-signing (only one copy per person, and no posed photographs, please).
They don’t know what it’s like to run from speech to speech, collecting as much as $200,000 per gig.
They don’t know what it’s like to be married to a man who earns $700,000 for one speech in Nigeria.
They don’t know what it’s like to have a daughter who gets paid $600,000 by NBC News for a not particularly taxing job.
They don’t know what it’s like to be so connected that even your hangers-on can get rich.
This is the life of labor the Clintons have chosen, and if it is arduous, it has its rewards. Between 2000 and 2008, the couple made roughly $110 million in income. They own two homes, one valued at $5 million in Washington, and another valued at $1.8 million in New York state. Last summer, they rented an $11 million mansion in the Hamptons. Such is their wealth that they are using complicated tax maneuvers to limit their exposure to the estate tax.
No one will necessarily hold this bonanza against Hillary, unless she minimizes it in a tone-deaf attempt to make herself out as an average working gal, as she has during the past couple of weeks. The country has a long history of successful wealthy Democratic politicians (FDR, JFK), but a more recent example of an unsuccessful wealthy Democratic politician (John Kerry), who suffered from the perception that he was an out-of-touch elitist.
Hillary’s expressed cluelessness about how truly well off she is, and why, risks putting her in the Kerry category. As Daniel Drezner of The Washington Post points out, her attitude surely reflects class divisions within the top 1 percent. If you hang out with celebrities and billionaires long enough, you will feel positively middle class even as you pull down millions of dollars per year.
Her cash windfall also will make the Democratic war on inequality at least a little more awkward, although she’s no different than other Democratic scourges of inequality who almost always sop up as much money as possible as soon as they’re out of government. For liberals, to paraphrase an old Ronald Reagan quip, fair reward for hard work and talent is when you get rich; a crisis in income inequality is when someone else does.
But Hillary would know nothing about these gradations within the upper stratosphere of wealth. She’s working too hard just to make ends meet.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.