He started two disastrous wars that have left millions dead or displaced, sat by while a major American city was destroyed, oversaw the evaporation of trillions of dollars in wealth and will leave office as one of the most loathed figures in American history.
One would expect a man like George W. Bush -- one who has single-handedly destroyed America's image in the world -- to slink off into well-deserved ignominy. But there's little chance of that. Instead, he's poised to line his pockets on the lecture circuit, a man who's led a famously unexamined life ready to pontificate about world events for fat fees.
He crassly told journalist Robert Draper that his chief post-presidential intention is to "give some speeches, just to replenish the ol' coffers." Other members of his disastrous administration are already "replenishing" their coffers.
Of course, Bush's coffers are not what most would consider depleted; he's leaving office with assets valued somewhere between $8 million and $20 million. But once he embarks on the lecture circuit, he'll be able to augment that fortune considerably. Bush will be able to command between $100,000 and $150,000 per speech, says Lourdes Swarts, president of 21st Century Speakers, a prominent speaking agency. For talks to overseas audiences, the figure rises to something closer to a quarter-million dollars. "The speaking market is wide and expands to overseas audiences," says Swarts.
Mark Updegrove, author of the 2006 book Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House, says Bush will be a huge draw. "There is no shortage of organizations willing to pay for the prestige of the presidency, regardless of how controversial a president is," he said. Swarts agrees: "President Bush will be very popular," she said.
But President Bush is not very popular with the American people, raising the question of who will be willing to pay him the extravagant sums he'll demand. Fortunately for him, the groups he has enriched during his eight disastrous years in the White House remain committed to him. "Keep in mind that in the corporate world, the president has an 80 percent approval rate, and they are the ones that will hire or fire a speaker," says Swarts. Many of the groups that hire former presidents are business organizations, and they can be counted on to keep Bush in high demand on the lecture circuit.
There are also a few countries in which he remains popular in -- popular destinations like Albania, the Philippines and Tanzania.
Lest anyone doubt Bush's prospective popularity as a speaker, former members of his administration provide correction. Ari Fleischer, the former White House spokesman who infamously warned Americans to "be careful what they said" following the 9/11 attacks, commands $15,000 to $25,000 per event.
Interested parties can choose between two standard speeches. In the first, "America and Israel: The path to Stability in the Middle East," listeners can hear Fleischer "take sides" in the conflict; he "credits Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East and notes the sacrifices they have made for peace. He asks where the moderate Arabs are, and he's sharply critical of the Palestinian leadership's failure to confront terror." There is no mention, apparently, of Bush's promise of a Palestinian state.
Alberto Gonzalez, the former attorney general who was forced to resign in disgrace for his role in the U.S. attorneys scandal, commands over $25,000 a pop to speak to like-minded audiences. His listing on the Greater Talent Network's Web site understatedly describes him as someone who "played a vital role in the administration's fight in the war on terror and addressing the changing role of the Department of Justice post 9/11."
Other administration officials also grab sizable speaking fees. John Ashcroft gets $25,000. Donald Rumsfeld gets $65,000 and is very popular. Karl Rove gets $50,000 and pimps himself out more aggressively than most. His Web site features dozens of testimonials from satisfied customers, mostly business groups.
"I think I can honestly say I have never met a more dynamic and gracious person," says Ballard W. Cassady, Jr., of the Kentucky Bankers Association.
"I don't think we could have had a better closing speaker than Karl. The attendees were almost unanimously enthralled throughout his entire presentation and pleasantly surprised at how funny and personable he was," reports the National Association of Convenience Stores.
"Karl Rove has a one-of-a-kind political mind and a biting wit. Both were on full display when he spoke for our recent luncheon. An enthusiastic Dallas crowd laughed along as they learned from his insight, then they gave him a standing ovation," gushes the president of the National Center for Policy Analysis, the conservative think tank.
All of this is in keeping with a gradual shift in how presidents comport themselves following their departure from the highest office. When Harry Truman left the White House in 1953, he was still surviving off his Army pension of $112.26 per month, and he had to take out a loan at Washington's national bank in his last weeks as president to get him through. He turned down numerous offers from organizations for easy jobs paying over $100,000 per year, and he never accepted consulting fees. He even turned down a free Toyota offered by the company as a demonstration of good relations between Japan and America. According to David McCullough's book Truman, "His only intention, as he said, was to do nothing -- accept no position, lend his name to no organization or transaction -- that would exploit or 'commercialize' the prestige and dignity of the office of the president."
Well, goodbye to all that. Presidents following Truman have had much less compunction about profiting from their time leading the most powerful nation on earth. Eisenhower was a paid TV news commentator during political party conventions, says Updegrove. "But it was still not very common for presidents to make money off the office until Gerald Ford joined the boards of several corporations," he says.
Ford was roundly criticized for his actions at the time, although they seem positively dignified by today's standards. He signed on with American Express, Texas Commerce Bank, 20th Century Fox Film Corp. and others. All told, he netted more than a million dollars in supplemental income from these corporations, but Ford dismissed his critics, saying, "it's nobody's business, because I'm a private citizen now." Subsequent presidents have agreed.
Ronald Reagan was heavily criticized for making commercials for Japanese companies, although Jimmy Carter had done much the same thing, according to Updegrove. George H.W. Bush was really the innovator in realizing the great wealth that could be amassed simply by talking. He left office in 1992 as a mildly popular one-term president after losing an election with the lowest percentage of the vote for any major candidate since William Howard Taft in 1912. But as recently as 2004, Bush the elder was reportedly paid more than $100,000 for giving speeches in China. "I don't know what my dad gets -- it's more than 50-, 75- thousand dollars a speech," the current president told Draper.
Bush also noted to Draper that "[Bill] Clinton's making a lot of money." Indeed, he is. After leaving office at age 54 in 2001 with approximately $12 million in legal debts, the former president made at least $40 million in speaking fees. The minimum fee was $100,000, but he got up to $400,000 for some speeches.
Clinton left office as a highly popular president, however. His 65 percent approval rating at the time of departure was the best for any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he was even more popular abroad than at home. Bush, on the other hand, will be leaving office more unpopular -- and for a longer period of time -- than any president in the history of American polling.
Even without his family's massive wealth, Bush would never be destitute. Since the Truman era, Congress has given former presidents a pension adequate for a comfortable retirement. Bush will receive $186,000 a year, in addition to travel funds, mailing privileges, Secret Service protection, office space, staff and transition expenses.