Hillary's money 'problem' [Commentary]

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's much-publicized book tour has kicked off with all the ballyhoo of a presidential candidacy now widely expected to occur. But it has already provided fodder for mild speculation that her Democratic nomination and election two years hence may not be a sure thing after all.

A few missteps coming out of the starting gate suggest that, six years after her failed 2008 bid for the nomination (detoured by Barack Obama), the former first lady remains a bit thin-skinned. When it comes to playing soccer goalie against the inevitable barrage of press queries about her suitability to be president, she has let a few get by her.


One touchy subject has been her personal wealth and that of her husband, the former president. How she (and he) have acquired it after his two terms in the Oval Office, and hence how it affects her credibility as a public voice for the average middle-class American, is the latest political buzz.

Bill Clinton rode to the White House in 1992 as an unassuming country boy who had risen to the governorship of Arkansas. With evident smarts and guile, he cast himself as a voice for the humble in national politics. Wife Hillary Clinton along the way made her own bones as a lawyer and policy adviser, winding up as first lady, and thereafter became a senator and secretary of state.


It was under her watch at the State Department that the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was attacked and set aflame, killing the U.S ambassador and three other Americans. She still bears the brunt of Republican accusations of negligence or worse in what has been a relentless Republican effort to blunt her credentials for the highest office.

In addition to that overt assault on her qualifications has come the big-money issue, which she has rather clumsily sought to cast aside by painting herself and her spouse as middle-class folks who got where they are, in the standard Democratic formulation, by "working hard and playing by the rules."

No persuasive evidence has surfaced to prove otherwise. But in an ABC News interview, she claimed that she and her husband were "not only dead broke but in debt" on leaving the White House in 2001. That seemed a bit much.

Her explanation that they entered it in 1993 with no money and struggled to pay house mortgages (plural) and for daughter Chelsea's education had to sound inartful at best to middle-class Americans who own a single modest home and have several kids approaching college age.

There is nothing in politics that obliges practitioners to take a vow of poverty or even of quiet desperation. Financial success is part of the American dream. But let's face it: The appearance of great wealth can be an albatross for a national office-seeker in times of a weak economy.

Just ask Mitt Romney, whose casual talk of trying to make a $10,000 bet with Texas Gov. Rick Perry in one 2012 primary debate, and later mentioning his wife's two Cadillacs at one of their several homes, hardly marked him as "one of us."

Hillary Clinton has a track record of much pro bono work for the poor and particularly for women's wage and other equality issues, and her labors with the family foundation started by her husband speak persuasively for her commitment to middle-class Americans. But as Mr. Dooley said, politics ain't beanbag, and winners must cope with perceptions as well as realities. An opponent can always be counted on to exploit a vulnerability, no matter how superficial it may seem.

Speaking for fees of $200,000 or more at universities charging skyrocketing tuition, as Hillary Clinton is said to have done, while also out shilling her memoirs, isn't likely to enhance her image as "one of us" either. A huge bus bearing the slogan "Ready for Hillary" has been seen cruising Washington area streets lately, perhaps part of the book tour promotion. But the rollout and the accompanying focus on the rich Clintons sounding like the rich Romneys may raise the question just how ready voters are.


Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is