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Clinton’s Transcript Problem

Hillary Clinton speaking to a crowd in front of a banner that reads Fighting For Us hillaryclinton.com
photo by Ted Eytan

Sometime this spring or summer, The New York Times editorial page will endorse Hillary Clinton in the race for president.

This endorsement will come after she dispatches Bernie Sanders and regardless of who the Republicans nominate to run against her. (The paper has already endorsed her for the primary race this year, as it did in 2008.) The endorsement will also mark a full six decades since the last time the editorial voice of the formerly Gray Lady supported a Republican. If you are not a history buff, that would be Dwight Eisenhower in his re-election campaign against Adlai Stevenson.

But the Times’ editorial page likes to proclaim its political independence, reality notwithstanding. That is why it is a problem for Clinton that the editors have joined the chorus of voices demanding that she release transcripts of paid speeches she gave to Goldman Sachs and other financial institutions.

Calls for Clinton to release the transcripts have cropped up repeatedly in debates and town hall settings. She and her campaign have held firm thus far, with deflections such as saying she will “look into it” or challenging other candidates to do the same. Sanders’ campaign staff countered that he has not spoken to major Wall Street firms, which given his political background can hardly surprise anyone. And the Republican contenders, who are not yet worried about Clinton, have no reason to involve themselves.

Clinton is not trying to protect any national security secrets with her reluctance to release the speeches. In fact, she has a spotty record of protecting classified information, as demonstrated by the problems her campaign has faced regarding her personal email server. But the calls for her to release her transcripts, from The Times and elsewhere, put her in a tough position.

Clinton has two big problems. The first is that, without a doubt, the speeches’ content will prove to be utterly banal. She was, of course, in no position to disclose anything confidential when she gave them. Instead, she almost certainly relied on anecdotes of high-profile events, with some color but little detail that was not already widely known. From the standpoint of getting insights into world affairs, the speeches probably were not worth everyone’s time, let alone the cumulative $11 million Clinton earned for giving them between the time she left her position in the administration and the announcement that she would run for president.

Clinton’s other problem is that, while she is running on a “tough on Wall Street” platform right now in order to match the socialist Sanders, in all likelihood she had kind and soothing words for her banker audiences, who had served as political punching bags since the financial crisis. They did not pay Clinton all that money to pile on the abuse. Given how nonsensical much of those bankers’ treatment has been, she had no rational reason to do so anyway. This goes to show how irrational our political campaigns have become.

Thanks to that irrationality, the mere fact that Clinton did not kick the bankers in the teeth while accepting their money and digesting their filet mignon would be highly inconvenient to her right now.

There is no scandal here. There is only the fact that Clintons, regardless of gender, have been by far the most talented people ever to play the game of monetizing a past or future turn in the West Wing (or the Lincoln Bedroom, as the case may be). Bill Clinton has been bringing home most of the bacon since leaving elected office, but Hillary displayed her chops – possibly pork – as well, in the brief time she had available to her before giving up her lucrative speaking tour in favor of campaigning.

The bankers may not have gotten any inside information from Clinton’s speeches, but they need all the friends they can get these days. If it cost a dozen or so million dollars to secure one in the White House, they surely considered that a price worth paying. But the candidate now faces a dilemma over whether to let the world see how she got paid such big money for what was, almost certainly, not much more than small talk.

It won’t make any difference in the end to members of The Times’ editorial board, but it makes them feel more independent to pretend that it could.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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