Washington The ruckus over the Clintons making off with unprecedented amounts of loot from their White House years is a great story. Do we care whether it's true?
The Washington Post reported Jan. 21 that the Clintons, "faced with multimillion-dollar houses to furnish here and in suburban New York, left the White House yesterday with an unprecedented $190,027 worth of gifts received over the last eight years." The always lively New York Post said: "Prez and Hil Gifts Could Fill Mansion."
The Washington Post was more sophisticatedly scathing. "Who Said You Can't Take It With You?" said a feature story. "Count the Spoons" said an editorial, concluding that the gift list "demonstrates again the Clintons' defining characteristic: They have no capacity for embarrassment. Words like shabby and tawdry come to mind." And note this: "No previous president appears to have accepted parting gifts of such magnitude, nor did the Clintons approach their last year's total in prior years."
The last part of that sentence is true. A May 1994 story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune noted: "Compared to the bounty reported by previous presidents, the gifts reported by the Clintons this week seem relatively modest, and in keeping with what you might expect from the first baby boomer president. Of the dozens of unsolicited gifts that arrived at the White House, the Clintons accepted $11,000 worth, less than half the value of those accepted by the Bushes in 1990."
Press accounts cite $26,839 as the Bush total the first year. Each May after that, the report was filed and the stories followed: $3,100 worth of evening bags, a gingerbread house for Millie, fishing rods and neckties for the president. The 1992 list included "a $265 briefcase from Actor Dan Aykroyd, a $1,245 handbag from designer Judith Leiber, three bathrobes and two sweat shirts from Ivana Trump ... and a $400 membership at the Arundel Beach Club purchased by a Maine neighbor."
Such lists don't exactly elevate a public servant, and when the final year's Bush filing came in at $53,000, there were editorial complaints about the White House becoming a black hole for gifts. But that was it.
So how do the Bushes and Clintons compare? Hints emerged a week after the first story, in a Washington Post piece about bad reviews for the Clintons' final days including the gifts. It said: "The $190,000 in gifts they accepted includes some gifts received in earlier years, but which the Clintons only decided recently to take with them out of the White House; the cumulative gifts they accepted are roughly on a scale with what previous presidents have taken, and not nearly so grandiose as Ronald Reagan's decision to let friends purchase a $2 million home for him until he raised money to buy it back."
Then The New York Times, which previously ran only a brief accounting of the gifts, on Jan. 30 reported that Mrs. Clinton "refused today to discuss the gifts at any length, saying: 'We followed all the rules.'... She also suggested that on a yearly basis the Clintons had accepted gifts in the White House at the same level as former President George Bush and his wife, Barbara."
So is this true? According to the government office where these ethics reports are filed, the documents are destroyed, by law, after six years. But the fellow I talked to said he's been in the office for 20 years and believes, "What makes this different is that they're reporting it all at once. I don't think (the Clintons) had done a whole lot of reporting before."
News accounts over the eight years show a total of $253,000 worth of gifts reported by the Clintons. For three years, I found no news stories. The only press estimate I could find of Bush's totals was $144,000, listed by the online magazine, Salon. My own Bush count from news stories was $130,000. So, presumably, an eight-year equivalent would be something like $275,000. That leaves plenty of unknowns but a strong impression that Bush pere and Clinton are in the same range on per-year gift acceptance.
As for other presidents, the reporting requirement began in 1978. Since then, we've had only the parsimonious Jimmy Carter; Ronald Reagan, of the $2 million gift house; and Bush and Clinton. Before the reporting requirement, presidential historian Michael Beschloss has said, "It was pretty loose. ... President Eisenhower in the 1950s, friends of his gave him all sorts of things for his farm in Gettysburg. They built a cottage for him at the Augusta National Golf Course."
Full disclosure. A comprehensive reporting of the facts: These have been good advances in public policy. They make good press policy, too, when not ignored. To borrow from the Washington Post editorial, the press has little capacity for embarrassment. And words like shabby come to mind.
Geneva Overholser is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.