The perils of pontificating for money

Not $20,000 in the penny plastic

Not $20,000 in the penny plastic

From time to time, I augment my absurdly meagre living by crafting speeches for famous people. It’s nice work, when I can get it. I have noticed that the more exalted the public figure, the less inclined he is to draft his own addresses.

Still, the real money is not in the writing, but in the yakking.

Sir Richard Branson of Virgin territory can command upwards of $250,000 per appearance. These days, he’s fond of making commencement speeches (I have no idea what, if anything, the billionaire charges for these). His recent post on the social networking site, LinkedIn, suggests that in such circumstances he prefers to forgo his customary fees and handle them personally, which means haphazardly:

“I have been offered to do graduation speeches over the years and did accept an honorary Doctor of Technology from Loughborough University. It was strange at the time, but now we have Virgin Galactic perhaps it’s not so strange! I was chuffed to receive it, having left school at 15. It was a hell of a lot easier than going through university to get it! If you are graduating, congratulations and good luck for your future. Every graduate – scratch that – every person has the chance to reach for the stars in their chosen field.”

The king of all toastmasters, however, must be former U.S. President Bill Clinton who has, according to some estimates, raked in as much as $89 million pontificating before rapt crowds of establishmentarians since the end of his second term. An item in the New York Daily News, published earlier this month, notes that the “retired” Commander in Chief “has earned a whopping $500,000 speaking advance to deliver a 45 minute speech at the 90th birthday bash for Israeli President Shimon Peres – putting (his) price tag at roughly $11,100 per minute.”

On the other hand, “The Democrat won’t personally benefit from the sum, as it will reportedly be directed to the William J. Clinton Foundation. Clinton’s foundation did not respond to a request for comment. . .Initially, invited guests were asked to pay an $800 entrance fee but President Peres pulled the plug on the cover charge, saying he wouldn’t attend the party in his honor if it turned into a fundraiser.”

All of which brings us to the odd case of Canadian Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who has promised to reimburse New Brunswick’s Grace Foundation – whose mission is to support the “St. John & St. Stephen Home” for the elderly – $20,000 he charged for a speech he delivered last year, when he was just a lowly Member of Parliament.

The decision, he announced on CTV’s Question Period, was “the right thing to do.” What’s more, he vowed, he was prepared to work with any group he might have addressed in his official capacity as an elected representative “to try to fix it and make it right.” If news reports are correct, that’s a lot of fixing.

According to last week’s Globe and Mail, “Mr. Trudeau won’t necessarily reimburse every organization that paid for his services – including schools and non-profit organizations – saying he was ‘open to exploring all options with them.’ Doing so could cost him most of the $277,000 he earned for speeches since becoming an MP. Mr. Trudeau earned a reported total of $1.3-million during his entire public-speaking career before running for party leader last year.”

The question, of course, is: If the repayment is the right thing to do now, why wasn’t it the right thing to do in March when he initially rejected the Grace Foundation’s request for recompense? (Its fundraiser actually lost money thanks, in part, to Mr. Trudeau’s pricey stipend).

Do sitting politicians have an obligation to present themselves at charitable functions free of charge? Or do they only see the light when Senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Mac Harb are on the hot seat over dicey expense accounts?

These are issues only Mr. Trudeau can resolve. Big bucks carry big responsibilities – the best reason, perhaps, for keeping one’s trap shut whenever at all possible.

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