Michelle Obama’s book tour is generating “Beyonce-level sales,” the Washington Post reports. Front-row tickets to hear her discuss her upcoming memoir, “Becoming,” are going for $3,000, which includes a preshow photo op, a reception with Obama, a signed book and an “exclusive VIP gift item.”
No. No. No.
Barack and Michelle Obama were a laudable president and first lady. Professionally, they were highly ethical, while culturally and politically they were exemplary role models. The Obama administration, which for its last six years faced a Republican Congress dedicated above all to Obama’s destruction, was among the most scandal-free in U.S. history. There is a reason Republicans spent years reinvestigating previous investigations of the made-for-Fox-News pseudo-event known as Benghazi: The genuine scandal pickings were mighty slim.
Of course, Obama was succeeded in office by Donald Trump, who has already scaled previously unattained heights in presidential corruption, using the Oval Office as a family profit center. Trump has dedicated his presidency to being Obama’s opposite, and on morality and ethics he quickly realized his goal.
So why pick on the Obamas for buckraking? The question has been raised before. In 2017, Barack Obama set off alarms with reports that he was shaking the money tree on Wall Street and elsewhere, collecting up to $400,000 per speech.
Matthew Yglesias at Vox criticized the money-grubbing as a boon to right-wing populists eager to portray the Democratic icon as just another rotten insider. Daniel Gross at Slate countered that if the success of liberal politics depends on virtue signaling by former presidents, then money-grubbing is the least of liberalism’s problems.
I’m with Yglesias — and not only because right-wing populism is a toxic and mutating force that requires strong remedies.
Countless news articles describe how vast shares of the nation’s wealth flow to the very richest, while middle incomes have stagnated or declined in recent decades and the poor remain economically marooned. Meanwhile, corporate boards blithely preside over a system in which the ratio of CEO pay to median-worker pay is 130-to-1, according to Bloomberg data.
The Obamas are already very wealthy. They are reported to have received a combined $65 million for their two books. And if their finances ever go south, they have the capacity to generate income virtually overnight.
Bill and Hillary Clinton were also very wealthy. But, as people often do, they concluded that far more than enough was actually not enough at all. Greed has damaged both of their reputations while supplying fodder for right-wing propaganda.
The Obamas have a chance to set a different example, finding a mean between the relative modesty of Jimmy Carter and the wanton moneymaking of the Clintons.
Writing a book is a legitimate way for political celebrities to make a lot of money. It requires months of work — even with a ghostwriter. Like Barack Obama’s speeches, however, Michelle Obama’s “arena book tour” looks like a relatively easy way to cash in on the renown and public affection nurtured over a decade in public life. The payoff will be in the millions — even if 10 percent of arena sales go to charities, as reported.
In office, the Obamas showed grace and courage under fire and a keen appreciation, in policy as well as rhetoric, for the travails of the non-rich. They have every right to forge a comfortable and secure life after leaving the White House. No one should begrudge them getting wealthy.
But good politics, in the presidential afterlife as in the campaign trenches, requires high public standards and personal scruples. Even in this increasingly unequal society and dangerously polarized era, it’s OK to get rich from political celebrity. It’s not OK to get obscenely rich from it.