Mitt Romney generated a bit of a flap back in January when he said he got “speaker’s fees from time to time, but not very much.”
According to his financial disclosure statements, from February 2010 to February 2011, that “not very much” added up to $374,327.62 in the 12 months before February 2011.
Words, like so many other things, have become a commodity that can go up or down in value, based on who’s uttering them and why. Celebrities, whether political, journalistic, sports or entertainment, can often command big fees for the star power they can bring to an event. Others, like a struggling author hoping to generate some attention for a book or a candidate trying to break into the headlines, may be more willing to make an investment of time and energy, without regard to whether they will actually get paid.
Back in 1965, when she was chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, Elly Peterson helped organize 10 dinners around the state on the same night, each featuring a prominent Republican. The goal was to help the party reduce its campaign debts. Ten Republicans, including New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, accepted the invitations. But Ronald Reagan, who was then making speeches as a warm-up to runinng for governor in California, did not. “He would come only if he got a big percentage of the take or $20,000 flat,” Peterson recalled. “He didn’t come. We didn’t want him. Overnight we paid off a big sum.”
Reagan apparently continued this practice until the mid-1970s, when, the late Lyn Nofziger recalled, aides advised him that this was the way to build political loyalty. Thus, I found it interesting that in the year before he was planning to mount a campaign for the presidency, Mitt Romney apparently decided to charge a substantial amount for making speeches of his own.
Now Romney’s not the only one, of course. Newt Gingrich said his going rate is $60,000 a speech, and former presidents like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton can command even more. Setting a high fee is also, arguably, a way to keep every small-town Chamber of Commerce or second-string trade association from bugging, It’s like the old adage, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”
Call me old-fashioned or call me merely jealous, but I’m troubled by the idea of politicians making money this way. Certainly, Mitt Romney is now talking for free to whomever will take the time to listen to him. But one wonders whether there might be a bit more enthusiasm for him today, if he had given a bit more time a few years ago to share his passion for free, rather than to line his pockets.
Especially when he wasn’t exactly going hungry.