WASHINGTON – When Hillary Rodham Clinton said this month that she was once dead broke, it was during an interview in which she led ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer through her $5 million Washington home, appointed like an ambassador’s mansion.
Mahogany antiques, vibrant paintings and Oriental rugs fill the rooms. French doors open onto an expertly manicured garden and a turquoise swimming pool, where Clinton recently posed for the cover of People magazine.
On her current book tour, the former secretary of state has traveled the country by private jet as she has for many of her speaking engagements since stepping down as secretary of state last year.
Her fee is said to be upwards of $200,000 per speech; the exceptions tend to be black-tie charity galas, where she collects awards and catches up with friends such as designer Oscar de la Renta and Vogue editor Anna Wintour.
Such scenes reveal a potentially serious political problem for Clinton as she considers a 2016 presidential run: She and her husband are established members of the 1 percent, leading lives far removed from the millions of middle-class voters who swing elections.
Clinton has underscored the contrast with a series of stumbles in discussing her finances – the latest in an interview with Britain’s Guardian newspaper published Sunday, in which she compared herself with other multimillionaires. Unlike the truly well off, Clinton said, she and former president Bill Clinton pay ordinary income tax and have amassed their fortune through dint of hard work.
Some influential Democrats – including former advisers to President Barack Obama – said in interviews last week they fear that Clinton’s personal wealth and rarefied, cloistered lifestyle could jeopardize the Democratic Party’s historic edge with the middle class that powered Obama’s wins.
I don’t know whether it’s just that she’s been Madam Secretary’ for so long, but she’s generating an imperial image, said Dick Harpootlian, who recently stepped down as Democratic Party chairman in South Carolina, which hosts an early presidential primary.
Harpootlian, who backed Obama over Clinton in 2008 and is a longtime ally of Vice President Joe Biden, added: She’s been living 30, going on 40 years with somebody bringing your coffee to you every morning. Is it more Downton Abbey’ than it is America?
Multiple Obama campaign advisers – who spoke only on the condition of anonymity to avoid alienating the Clintons – said they fear Clinton’s financial status could hurt her as it did Republican nominee Mitt Romney, whom Obama portrayed in 2012 as an out-of-touch plutocrat at a time of economic uncertainty.
Clinton’s allies, however, strongly dispute suggestions that she is disconnected from the concerns and values of middle-class Americans. They note she grew up in a middle-class suburb of Chicago and said she has committed her adult life to lifting up the downtrodden – from her early work at the Children’s Defense Fund to initiatives at her family’s charitable foundation.
Whoever thinks she has lost touch is clearly not in touch with her or her long-held beliefs, said Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill. If they were, they’d know that reducing inequality and increasing upward mobility has been an uninterrupted pursuit of hers through every job she’s held and continues to this day in her work at the Clinton Foundation.
Other backers noted that the Clintons gave up more lucrative careers in business or finance, making their money giving speeches and writing books.
Our nation has always applauded success, but politically, the focus is on how successful people can help us achieve, said Robert Zimmerman, a longtime Clinton supporter and a member of the Democratic National Committee from New York. The Clinton history has always been how to bring more people into the middle class.
Following a lifetime with limited means, both Clintons became wildly successful financially after leaving the White House. In 2000, the couple had as much as $10 million in debt, according to financial disclosure documents that Hillary Clinton later filed as a senator. Much of it was unpaid legal fees from investigations into the couple’s Whitewater investments and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
In 2001, Bill Clinton made $13 million in speaking fees and Hillary began earning an advance for her first memoir, Living History, that totaled $8 million. By 2004, their debts were erased.
During the 2008 campaign, the Clintons released tax returns showing they had earned $109 million over eight years. And their earnings kept growing. In 2012, Bill Clinton reported collecting $16.4 million in speaking fees – including a $700,000 honorarium for a single appearance in Nigeria, according to Hillary Clinton’s latest federal financial disclosure.
Strategist Donna Brazile, a Clinton supporter, said scrutiny of Clinton’s speaking fees smacks of sexism.
I hope Hillary never apologizes for trying to earn a living, Brazile said. She’s no different than (former secretary of state) Colin Powell, no different than (former Florida governor) Jeb Bush, no different than anybody else who’s left public office and looked for ways to make an income. What is wrong with a woman having the same earning potential as any man?