By Alan W. Dowd
Leaked passages from John Bolton’s yet-to-be-published memoir of his time as President Donald Trump’s national security advisor triggered a firestorm during the Senate’s impeachment trial. What didn’t trigger a storm was the $2-million advance Bolton received to write about his 519 days of service as a presidential aide. Perhaps it should have.
Bolton is only the latest in a long line of former government officials who have reaped big paydays for their public service—especially via the printed word.
In his essential history of the Cold War, The Fifty Year Wound, Derek Leebaert describes how Arthur Schlesinger, an aide to President John Kennedy, “hurried down from Harvard to make history with a view toward writing it.” Indeed, immediately after departing the administration, Schlesinger penned a best-selling memoir of the Kennedy presidency.
In the 1990s, the memoirs of Gen. Colin Powell and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf set records as the most lucrative book deals in history. Powell’s deal was worth $6 million, Schwarzkopf’s $5 million.
President George W. Bush’s book deal was worth $7 million, former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s $8 million and President Bill Clinton’s $10 million. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife netted $15 million—mostly for book deals—in the two years after they left public service.
Among Trump-era public servants that beat Bolton to press are former FBI Director James Comey (who, like Bolton, inked a $2-million book deal), former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, Donald Trump Jr., former Defense Secretary James Mattis, a former Mattis speechwriter and even an anonymous White House staffer.
By far the most eye-popping example of this post-public-service-payday trend is the $65-million deal President Barack Obama and his wife signed in 2017 for their memoirs. In addition, the Obamas signed a multiyear deal with Netflix estimated to be worth millions.
On a related note, some critics have charged that Trump’s vast hotel empire brushes up against the Constitution’s ban on emoluments. Indeed, Trump was forced to shelve plans to host this year’s G-7 Summit at his resort in Florida for this very reason.
The defense offered by some former public officials that they need these sorts of deals—even that they have earned them—because they didn’t make enough during their years in public service is unpersuasive.
Presidents are compensated $400,000 per year. Cabinet secretaries are paid $210,700 per year, high-level advisors such as Bolton $183,000 per year. The typical member of Congress is paid $174,000 per year. Congressional pensions range as high as $75,528 per year.
The purpose here is not is to argue that public servants are overpaid. In fact, some of them are underpaid. And many public servants could earn far more in the private sector. Some of them put their careers on hold to serve our country, and for that they deserve our respect. America needs her best and brightest to use their talents in public service. However, each of them chooses to serve and knows there are sacrifices—financial, personal, etc.—that come with that choice. Their public service doesn’t entitle them to a payday after leaving government.
Moreover, it may be helpful to put those public-service salaries in some perspective: Median per-capita income in the United States is around $33,000, while median household income is around $61,000. This is not to stoke the embers of class envy, but rather to suggest that the vast majority of Americans would probably conclude that a high six-figure salary and a five-figure pension—things that very few Americans enjoy—are compensation enough for public servants.
This post-public-service-payday trend—this notion that outgoing government officials can parlay public service into an economic windfall—is not healthy for our republic.
First, it breeds cynicism and contributes to a sense that public servants serve themselves rather than the public. Eighty-seven percent of voters believe corruption is widespread in the federal government, and 33 percent believe “most government officials abuse power for personal gain.” Whether warranted or not, this level of cynicism is corrosive to representative democracy, which presupposes and requires some degree of trust between the people and their representatives.
Second, and equally worrisome, it risks pulling us away from our roots as a self-governing republic and ever closer to a society divided into political elites and everyone else—a plutocracy in which politics is used as a way for the connected to cash in.
The problem here is not with making money—whether while serving in government or after serving in government. The free enterprise system is superior to all other ways of organizing an economy because it allows people to profit from their hard work, ingenuity and God-given talent. Rather, the problem is this trend toward cashing in from public service. To do so mocks the very term: A post-government payday is about personal gain, not the public good. And working in government in order cash in is something less than service. Service without some sacrifice is really not service.
The Founders grappled with these issues. Federalist No. 57 notes that “The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.” It goes on to argue that there must be “a communion of interests and sympathy of sentiments” connecting public officials and the public. Without this connection, “every government degenerates into tyranny.”
The Founders recognized that virtue isn’t always enough to keep public officials on the straight and narrow—and that some public officials would not be so virtuous. When virtue flags or fails, we turn to “effectual precautions,” like the law, which serves as a backstop for virtue, a support mechanism for the public good.
So, perhaps it’s time to explore legislation that prevents public servants from parlaying their service into personal paydays.
Already, there are laws on the books declaring that a federal “employee shall not use his public office for his own private gain.” But what about a former employee?
There are byzantine rules and regs related to book deals for current federal employees. But what about books published after a high-level public servant leaves public service?
And the House has passed legislation that aims to close loopholes related to the use of political office for personal gain, including new restrictions on private-sector payment for public service and a longer waiting period for lobbying activity after leaving government. But what about the issue of post-public-service paydays?
These are thorny questions, but they need to be addressed.
An outright ban on payments for political memoirs would be problematic. After all, the memoirs of policymakers can—at their best—offer important insights about why and how decisions were made. Posterity and the public gain from such insights.
Consider the case of President Ulysses Grant, who penned what is considered the greatest presidential memoir. To be sure, Grant wrote the book for financial reasons, but they were anything but selfish.
Dying and broke, Grant desperately wanted to leave something to his family. Written in his own hand as his body succumbed to throat cancer, Grant’s autobiography would be a literary triumph as well as a triumph of the human spirit. Moreover, the story of how the book was promoted is deeply moving. Mark Twain, the book’s publisher, enlisted Grant’s men as subscription agents for the book. “Dressed in the faded blue uniforms of the Union Army, often wearing medals from Shiloh or Gettysburg,” writes literary critic Robert McCrum, they traveled “across the U.S. to raise advance orders for Grant’s memoirs. Countless veterans signed up for a story that was not just a presidential memoir, but a lasting and tangible mirror to their own individual struggles and sacrifice.”
It was said that every home in the North owned a copy of the two-volume memoir. That may not be hyperbole: Twain cut Grant’s widow checks totaling some $450,000—roughly equivalent to $13 million today. It pays to recall that wasn’t an advance; and it didn’t go to Grant.
Of course, we know that many political memoirs and autobiographies fall short of the standard set by Grant. Instead, they devolve into exercises in self-congratulation, revisionism and/or backslapping. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for them, of course.
Speaking of markets, one solution to this conundrum could be to remove some of the market incentives for these post-public-service paydays. We could learn from what might be called the Grant model: Legislation could require that former high-level policymakers create a trust for book earnings/advances to be set aside for a designee upon the author’s death; or that they donate their earnings/advances to charity; or that a cap be set on what former high-level public officials are permitted to make in exchange for telling about their time in public service.
These aren’t outlandish ideas. In order to promote the public good, Congress already has passed a wide range of laws restricting what, when and how much government employees and former government employees can be compensated for work outside government (see above).
Moreover, some former officials actually forgo seven- or eight-figure advances for their books: Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, according to published reports, didn’t accept an advance for his memoir and donated the proceeds to charity. The same goes for former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. And then there’s the remarkable case of George C. Marshall—who served as Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense during the early years of the Cold War, Army Chief of Staff and the first five-star General of the Army during World War II, an officer deployed to France during World War I, and an infantryman during the Philippine insurgency. He also was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize for his visionary plan to rebuild and rehabilitate Europe.
In short, if ever there was a former public official with a story to tell, it was Marshall. Yet as Leebaert details, after Marshall retired from a lifetime public service, he “joined no corporate board…gave no paid speeches” and refused a million-dollar book deal—the equivalent of more than $9.7 million today. Marshall’s response to the offer: “The people of the United States have paid me for my services.”
That’s a portrait of virtue—and the posture a public servant should take after he has done his part.