Our Standards for Public Officials

Imagine this scenario: a wealthy and influential politician creates a philanthropic foundation that dedicates itself to global causes. While the public may have only a vague idea of the foundation’s actual doings, its name is famous and it attracts substantial-sized donations from CEOs and celebrities. This politician eventually becomes Secretary of State, heads off to Washington D.C. and hands over the reins of the foundation to his/her spouse, without ever severing formal ties to this organization. During this politician’s tenure as Secretary of State, donors who gifted millions of dollars to the foundation may or may not have received special access to the politician’s time.

Am I alluding to Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation? Of course I am. I am also describing former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his charity, America’s Promise. Only one of these people, however, has come under intense media scrutiny for their ties to their charity and its donors.

Comparing the actions of Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell reveals a certain hypocrisy and double standard with regard to how the American public and the American media have treated Hillary Clinton and her time as Secretary of State. This in no way excuses or defends her actions concerning her private email server or her foreign policy. It is, of course, important to hold our public officials to a high standard of transparency and honesty. Nevertheless, Hillary Clinton is the first person to be consistently raked across the coals for not consistently meeting those high standards.

The Wall Street Journal reported early this September that before giving a speech on September 16, 2011 on empowering women at a summit in San Francisco, she “met with nine executives from Wal-Mart Stores Inc., for which she once served on the board.”  In the spring of 2012, Wal-Mart promised millions of dollars in grants to 55,000 Latin American women through a “public-private partnership” Clinton had created at the State Department and donated $55,000 to Vital Voices, a charity Clinton had co-founded. Later in the year Secretary Clinton visited India where she argued for the loosening of restrictions on superstore retailers.

The clear implication from the Wall Street Journal is that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. gained influence over Clinton and her foreign policy decisions after donating to her various charities.

Despite Clinton’s representative stating that she was arguing on behalf of all American companies in general, this may very well be the case. The WSJ might take issue with the way Clinton handled her relationship with Wal-Mart, but no one cared when Colin Powell did the exact same thing when he was secretary. According to both Matthew Yglesias at Vox.com and the Non-Profit Quarterly, Ken Lay, chair of Enron, was a major donor to Powell’s America’s Promise. While Colin Powell was Secretary of State, the State Department helped defend Enron in a dispute between that company and the Indian government. Ken Lay was also a big donor to one of Barbara Bush’s charities while George W. Bush was in office.

Can it be proved that the chair of Enron was afforded time or influence with the State Department due to his connections with and donations to the Secretary of State and his charity? No. At that time, the media were not after Colin Powell like they currently are after Hillary Clinton. No one in the media investigated those connections.

The American public considers it almost common knowledge that Hillary Clinton is “corrupt.” This is mostly due to the way the media cover every piece of information about her, as when an ABC investigation “revealed” that a donor to the Clinton Foundation used his connections to get better seating at a State Department function. There is nothing wrong with this level of scrutiny, but let it be applied to everyone else. No one began any investigations or witch-hunts when AT&T donated large sums to Powell’s foundation while Powell’s son was chair of the Federal Communications Commission, the governmental body that regulates AT&T.

Hillary Clinton is in no way less guilty of anything the press or the American public has accused her of. It is time, however, that the charges against her are also brought to the rest of our public officials. If giving time or policy influence to corporate donors is wrong, then it must be wrong for everyone.