Bill and Hillary’s Hamptons Holiday

Column: What the Clintons tell us about American democracy

Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton / AP
August 23, 2013

Over the last few weeks my morning paper has carried not one story but two that tell, in exquisite detail, how power is transacted in America today. Following the activities of a single family as it navigates and exploits the connection between riches, access, and influence, the New York Times is, perhaps without intending to, composing a gripping narrative of social climbing and favor trading. The holdouts who still believe politics is anything other than the struggle of families, whether nuclear or extended or tribal or national, for power over material resources cannot be familiar with the lives of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Their very being dispels such illusions.

And their family needs no introduction. The Clintons are perennials, giant corpse flowers whose periodic bloom overwhelms the surrounding environment. Bill used to be president, Hillary ran for president but lost, and after four years as secretary of state Hillary is ready to run for president again. Highly educated, professional, supremely confident, clever, versed in the rhetoric of domestic and foreign policy, mouthing pieties about America’s middle class while operating within an Elysium of their own design, having the ability to slip conventional opinions on and off like well-pressed pantsuits, the Clintons represent like no others the meritocratic bourgeois liberal caste that manages the West. Right now they are on vacation.

Where else would they summer but the Hamptons, where they currently are renting an $11 million, 3.5-acre, six-bedroom, four-fireplace beachfront property owned by Republican donor Michael Saperstein. Saperstein’s partisan affiliation is immaterial: Once one reaches the highest echelons of wealth and power, party designation has little meaning. The sign of the dollar is neither a D nor an R. Past rentals in the Hamptons have cost the Clintons $200,000 a summer, according to the Times, and this year’s house "is costing them about the same."

It’s a full house. Not only are Bill and Hillary there. So are Roger Clinton and his son; Tony Rodham; and three of Tony Rodham’s children from both his marriages. There are also the Clintons’ dogs: Seamus, "an 8-year-old arthritic chocolate Labrador," Tally, "a poodle," and Maisie, "a curly-haired pup of undetermined breed." Daughter Chelsea and her husband Marc, who kept his last name, are absent. Chelsea is in Oxford, "finishing her dissertation." Marc is in the city, "working on a business deal." What deal? The Times doesn’t say. But don’t worry. We’ll no doubt be learning about it in the newspapers one day.

"The Clintons, who are here for roughly two weeks, have been coming to the Hamptons for so long—as visitors, cash-seeking candidates, and more recently, renters—that they have built up a social circle, and with it, some social obligations," write Jim Rutenberg and Amy Chozick in prose smacking of irony. I say the prose smacks of irony because otherwise that would be the most naïve sentence I’ve read in months. Building circles is the chief skill Bill and Hillary Clinton possess: circles of friendship, clout, prestige, and authority, circles of scandals, lies, and broken promises, circles of acquaintance and association through which they fund their lifestyles and exercise their power.

The Clinton circles are everywhere. And so are the Clintons. They show up in the most random places. In 2008 I found myself surprised when Bill and Hillary appeared in Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones documentary, Shine a Light, chatting with Mick and the blokes before the house was opened to the masses. It occurs to me now that my surprise was entirely misplaced: Where wealth, liberalism, celebrity, and the Baby Boom intersect, that is where Bill and Hillary Clinton will be.

In the Hamptons the Clintons spend time with the usual suspects, the names that appear on our front-pages, the faces on our television screens, the people for whom the Aspen Ideas Festival represents cutting-edge thinking and Davos and Bilderberg are places where common-sense folks get things done. Among the names dropped in the Times: Matt Lauer and Mort Zuckerman, Paul McCartney and Jimmy Buffett, Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz and restaurateur Tom Colicchio, Ron Perelman and real estate multi-multi-millionaire Peter S. Kalikow, Bo Diddley and Van Morrison and Paul Simon, as well as Robert Zimmerman, "a prominent Democratic fundraiser who has a home in Southampton."

Together these illustrious and credentialed and accomplished and richer than Croesus individuals dine at restaurants such as Collichio’s Topping Rose House, whose lunch menu includes scallop crudo, purslane, picked spring onion, & buttermilk dressing, roasted fluke, and Wagyu skirt steak, a caste staple. For lighter fare they alight to Babettes, for the cake, and to the Bridgehampton location of Almond, whose proprietor is the brother of New York City mayoral candidate Anthony "Show ’em What You Got" Weiner, who in turn is married to Hillary’s protégée Huma Abedin.

The Weiner-Abedins are just one reason the Clintons could use a good vacation. For much of the year Hillary Clinton’s triumphal march to the White House has had the trappings of a transfer of power in Imperial Rome: a spirited denunciation of the patrician Senate, a well-coordinated joint interview and photo opportunity with the current emperor, prominent speeches to the tribunes of the people, all set to a soundtrack of laudatory media and exhortations from powerful Democrats that would make even the most shameless propagandist blush. The summer, though, has been tough.

It is not the conservatives who are causing trouble for Hillary. It is her closest associates—the members, so to speak, of her innermost circle. Weiner made a fool of himself when more pictures of his genitals appeared online, and he disclosed that his adventures in sexting carried on after his resignation from the House of Representatives in 2011. Then Terry McAuliffe’s electric car project GreenTech Automotive, in which Hillary’s brother had invested, became the focus of a federal probe.

What has given the Clintons the most trouble, however, was the August 13 New York Times report headlined "Unease at Clinton Foundation Over Finances and Ambition." The investigation, coauthored by Nicholas Confessore and Amy Chozick, opened a window onto the Clinton’s financial-political operation that was amazing in its level of detail. Reporting on an internal review of the Clinton Foundation, the Times portrayed an organization that "had become a sprawling concern, supervised by a rotating board of old Clinton hands, vulnerable to distraction and threatened by conflicts of interest."

Employing 350 people in 180 countries, the foundation is the Clintons' private empire, a sort of deep state influencing public policy not only in the developing world but also in America and Europe. In 2012, the Times reports, the foundation and two of its subsidiaries "had revenues of more than $214 million." And yet its deficit was $8 million in 2012, and in 2007 and 2008 its combined deficit was $40 million. "Efforts to insulate the foundation from potential conflicts have highlighted just how difficult it can be to disentangle the Clintons’ charity work from Mr. Clinton’s moneymaking ventures and Mrs. Clinton’s political future," the Times notes.

Indeed, the fundraising and business and political schemes described in the Times are of such complexity that one hardly knows where to begin. One must fall back, instead, on the indelible images sprinkled throughout the piece: of the foundation buying a first-class ticket for Natalie Portman, accompanied by "her beloved Yorkie," to attend a 2009 meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative; of longtime Clinton aide Ira Magaziner, "lying on a conference room table in the middle of the meeting because of terrible back spasms, snapping at a staff member"; of operative Doug Band writing Bill Clinton’s statement announcing the former president’s departure from Band’s consulting firm, Teneo, in 2012—a statement that read, "I couldn’t have accomplished half of what I have in my post-presidency without Doug Band"; of Hillary Clinton relocating her personal staff "of roughly seven people" to the foundation’s New York headquarters, where they "will work on organizing Mrs. Clinton’s packed schedule of paid speeches to trade groups and awards ceremonies and assist in the research and writing of Mrs. Clinton’s memoir about her time at the State Department"; and of 33-year-old Chelsea Clinton presuming that the skills she learned at McKinsey, Oxford, and NBC News somehow will empower her to clean up the gigantic and labyrinthine and compromised mess that so perfectly reflects her father’s personality. John Catsimatidis, a prominent Clinton donor who is running for mayor of New York City, told the Times that Chelsea "has to learn how to deal with the whole world because she wants to follow in the footsteps of her father and her mother." Oh joy.

Following in those footsteps would mean setting up organizations that rely on pledges from major corporations while your associates establish consulting firms charging those same corporations for "strategic advice." Following in those footsteps would mean flying the banner of "charity" while you act as the middleman between multinational conglomerates and corrupt and indebted third-world governments. Following in those footsteps would mean relying on a cast of veteran stooges despite past failures and leaks to the press as they scramble to inflate their reputations at the cost of your own. Following in those footsteps means diverting a portion of the money pledged to the latest cause of the global elite, and using it to maintain habits of consumption and leisure worthy of Kublai Khan’s stately pleasure dome.

Most of all, though, following in those footsteps means indelibly conflating the good of the world with the good of yourself, your family, your clique, your tribe: of covering your trade in access, influence, and reputation with the houndstooth blanket of liberation and empowerment and public health and green energy and economic integration. To follow in those footsteps, one must take to heart the words of Jack London in The Iron Heel: "The great driving force of the oligarchs is the belief that they are doing right."

London's sentiment seems to me like good fodder for one of those legendary, epic, Bill-led, Clinton-family discussions—perhaps over a dinner at Almond of Berkshire Pork Chop Milanese and Goat Cheese Ravioli, accompanied by a bottle of Sea Smoke Pinot Noir, beneath the stars above the beaches of Bridgehampton.