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The House that Talking Built: Clintons’ speaking riches a political conundrum

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Former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the 2014 Meeting of Clinton Global Initiative University at Arizona State University in Tempe March 22, 2014. (Reuters)

Speech in Saudi Arabia? $300,000. 

Speech in Austria? $500,000. 

Speech in Hong Kong? $750,000. 

And those are just a few of the windfalls banked by Bill and Hillary Clinton since each has left their respective office. 

For Hillary, the wealth factor could loom just as large in a potential 2016 White House bid as lingering questions about her handling of the Benghazi attack or dredged-up controversies from the Clinton White House days. But at issue is not just the net worth of the former first family -- but how they made that money. The Clintons have amassed a fortune on a ‘profession’ that few Americans can relate to. 

Simply put, it is the house that talking built. 

"[Clinton] thinks 'hard work' is giving speeches because she's a Clinton. There aren't many/any Americans who can identify with that," Republican National Committee spokesman Raffi Williams said. 

Asked about their success at a meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative last week in Denver, former President Bill Clinton said: “I'm shocked that it's happened. I'm shocked that people still want me to come give talks. And so I'm grateful.”

Republicans, though, are still bruised from the beating Democrats gave Mitt Romney in 2012 over how he made his money. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus signaled Sunday that if Clinton runs, the GOP will give her equal treatment.

“I don't think flying on private jets and collecting $250,000 for a speech is considered to be hard work,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” drawing a distinction between other unnamed wealthy people and the Clintons. “People respect folks that earn their money and work hard and they become rich, but when you talk about being dead broke and when you try to make believe that you understand how average people live, but you made $105 million giving speeches, I think people are tired of this show.”

David Avella, president of Republican recruiting arm GOPAC, did not begrudge the Clintons for building a fortune off public speaking.

“Kudos to them,” he said.

However, he said Hillary Clinton already has a hard time seeming “authentic” and connecting with everyday people. “Her challenge is that she wasn’t able to do that in 2008 … and this book tour suggests she still struggles with that,” he told FoxNews.com, referring to awkward answers Clinton has given to questions about their earnings since leaving public office.  

In modern history, it is practically a given for the outgoing occupant (or occupants) of the White House to promptly hook up with a speakers bureau, and reap the benefits of their stature. Former President George W. Bush did it. His father did it before him.

But the Clintons have turned the trade into a humming enterprise which, together with book proceeds, has throttled them from – in the former first lady’s words – being “dead broke” to raking in over $100 million since their White House days.

A peek through the Clintons’ financial records shows some staggering speaking sums, many of which were earned at high-powered summits overseas by the former president.

Bill Clinton has averaged well above $200,000 per speech lately, but many organizations are dangling double that or more for the pleasure of his company.

The family’s 2011 records show a $750,000 speech in Hong Kong, and another $700,000 speech in Lagos, Nigeria, to a newspaper company. (He was invited again to Lagos the following year, for the same fee.)

Clinton earned a cool half-million each for a pair of speeches in Europe that May.

In 2012, he earned nearly $17 million on speeches alone.

Other past presidents and dignitaries also are earning handsome sums, though not quite as much.

The Center for Public Integrity reported in 2011 that former President George W. Bush was raking in between $100,000 and $150,000 a speech. By one “conservative” estimate, he had earned about $15 million since leaving the White House.

His secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, also received $150,000 for a recent appearance at the University of Minnesota, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Hillary Clinton, according to published reports, is making close to her husband’s batting average, in the ballpark of $200,000 per speech since leaving Foggy Bottom.

The latest controversy to erupt has involved a reported $225,000 fee she’s accepting for an upcoming fundraising in October at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Some students are asking her to return the speaking fee. 

Questions about the fee to the Clinton Foundation were referred to Hillary Clinton's speaking agency, which has not returned a request for comment. 

But according to Business Insider, a Clinton aide said she has given dozens of free speeches and noted that the payment from UNLV is going to the Clinton Foundation (not Hillary Clinton’s own pockets).

A statement from the university confirms this, saying the fee will be “entirely given as a donation to the non-profit Clinton Foundation” and comes from “donors’ private contributions for this event.”

The university notes that her appearance follows past addresses by everyone from former Secretary of State Colin Powell to former first lady Barbara Bush to … yes, Bill Clinton.

Unlike Powell or the other former first lady, however, Clinton is flirting, heavily, with a presidential campaign, and she has struggled to address her own wealth – and in a sense, own it.  

In a recent interview with The Guardian, she continued to rebuff the idea that she’s entered the rarified air of true wealth, and gave the impression of scrapping for every dime – or speaking fee.   

“They don't see me as part of the problem,” she told her interviewer, “because we pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off, not to name names; and we've done it through dint of hard work.” 

Kirsten Powers, a Fox News analyst and USA Today columnist who previously worked as a Democratic strategist, said the Clintons’ wealth is not so much the issue as it is her “out of touch” comments. 

“When you're referring to multiple houses while you're talking about how broke you are, that seems out of touch,” she said on “Fox News Sunday.”

She noted that Republicans hammered former Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, now secretary of State, on the wealth factor during the 2004 race.

“Clearly, they're going to do it to the Clintons again,” she said, “and they should be prepared for it.”