The headline in the March 5, 1929 edition of the Chicago Tribune read, "Plain Citizen Coolidge Shuts Desk and Quietly Goes Home." Calvin Coolidge would write a newspaper column from Northampton, Massachusetts, for which he presumably was paid a pittance, but other than that he refused to exploit his notoriety or accomplishments as president for money.
When he left office in 1953, Harry S. Truman and his wife, Bess, repaired to Independence, Missouri, where they lived in a house they had previously shared with her mother. Truman refused to serve on any corporate boards and rejected other financial opportunities that might have been his because he said he did not want to diminish the integrity of the presidency.
Richard Nixon departed from that standard, charging $1 million for an interview with David Frost. The selling of the presidency, to paraphrase the title of a 1968 book by Joe McGinniss, had begun.
Every president since Nixon has used the office as a stepping stone to great wealth. Ronald Reagan was paid $2 million for two speeches in Japan. George W. Bush has made an estimated 200 speeches since leaving office, some to benefit wounded warriors and others to benefit himself. Bush once told The New York Times, "I don't know how much my dad gets, but it's more than 50, 75 thousand dollars a speech." According to Politico, Bush 43 makes between $100,000 and $175,000 per appearance.
Then there are the Clintons, who took post-presidential moneymaking to new heights (or depths, depending on your perspective).
Now comes former President Obama, who is receiving $400,000 for a one-hour speech at a conference run by Cantor Fitzgerald, a Wall Street firm. Like his Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded soon after he took office with no accomplishments to warrant it, Obama is getting the money primarily for his celebrity, not his deeds.
Since 1958, Congress has generously provided for our ex-presidents, including transition money for office and staff expenses, good for seven months after leaving office, as well as Secret Service protection for life. To Carter's credit, however, of all the modern presidents, he cashes in the least, if he can be said to at all. He rarely accepts speaking fees, and when he does he usually donates the proceeds to his charitable foundation.
As Time magazine noted, "Obama's annual presidential pension is $205,700," which is what the other living ex-presidents get. Like the others, Obama will receive subsidies for travel, office staff and supplies, as well as Secret Service protection. Ex-vice presidents also receive pensions after leaving office, though not protection from the Secret Service.
Michelle Obama also plans to make lucrative appearances on the lecture circuit.
The Truman maxim about not diminishing the integrity of the presidency is long gone.
During his eight years in the White House, President Obama received, in addition to his $400,000 salary, free travel aboard Air Force One, free housing and food, free utilities and a host of other perks that would allow him to save and invest much of that money to take care of himself and his wife after leaving office.
There will be book deals to come for both Obamas and more millions will be paid to them.
As one who occasionally makes paid speeches for far more modest sums, I have no beef over how much anyone can earn from the private sector. My question is if ex-presidents are making millions because they were president, why should the taxpayers continue to pay them?
Congress should consider reducing payments in direct proportion to how much presidents make in "retirement." With the debt approaching $20 trillion, taxpayers shouldn't be on the hook for underwriting lifestyles of former presidents that would have outraged Coolidge and Truman and probably most presidents since George Washington.
Like former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, the Obamas are cashing in. That term was once considered a negative judgment of one's character. In an era of little shame, it seems to have become a term of endearment.
Cal Thomas, America's most-syndicated columnist, is the author of 10 books.