You’d never guess by reading this but I’m on vacation — sort of. Like most stay-at-home worker drones in the year of coronavirus, I had used almost none of my 2020 vacation time, so in December I’m working on my book six days a week (some vacation, huh?) but writing this newsletter on the seventh because I would hate not connecting with you guys. Did someone forward you this email? Sign up to receive this newsletter weekly at inquirer.com/bunch and join our big, messy family.
An exiled Clinton aide reveals how he and his ex-boss made millions. Can Team Biden avoid influence peddlers?
In a week when the 45th president of the United States is trying to upstage the arrival of the 46th by frantically trying to overturn the 2020 election results, and the pandemic has devolved to a point where America is losing a 9/11-equivalent of citizens on many days, the news cycle isn’t really equipped to handle scandal news about Bill Clinton, especially when it’s been almost 20 years since he’d left the White House.
Still, the deeply reported tell-all interview that writer Gabriel Sherman published in Vanity Fair with Doug Band, who was Clinton’s right-hand man for the first 15 or so years of his post-presidency, did carry at least one New York Post-worthy nugget — an allegation that the 42nd president (despite continued denials) did in fact fly in 2003 to the “Pedophile Island” hideaway of his friend, the late convicted child-sex-fiend Jeffrey Epstein.
I imagine most folks who read Sherman’s piece were looking for titillating stuff like the Epstein revelation or the story of how Band’s close relationship with Clinton crashed to an end when the younger associate said maybe Bill should divorce Hillary Clinton if he wanted to keep having (unnamed in the story) “girlfriends.” But I thought the real scandal of the piece was hiding in plain sight: How Band — and also Clinton himself, along with associates and even family — made millions of dollars based largely on nothing more than their connections.
Described by Sherman as “equal parts fixer, gatekeeper, wingman, consigliere, and adopted son” after landing a White House job as Clinton’s “body man” while also attending Georgetown Law School, Band detailed how he turned around the ex-president’s battered image after the Monica Lewinsky affair — initially through the charitable Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, in which large corporations and billionaires could rebrand themselves as philanthropists while hobnobbing with the former leader of the free world.
Band and associates then launched a company called Teneo, which is Latin for “I possess.” According to Sherman’s profile: “They aspired to create a communications firm, investment bank, and management consultancy all in one, with fees to match: Teneo’s retainers would start at $150,000 a month and reach into the millions.”
OK, I’ve read the article twice now and I have no idea what Teneo actually does. All I know is that the enterprise was so lucrative that a) according to Band, Clinton’s daughter Chelsea showed up with her dad one day to demand a cut of the action (Chelsea Clinton denies it) and b) he recently sold a majority stake in the amorphous firm to a private-equity group for $700 million. The whole thing reeks of an elite kleptocracy in which people who went to the right schools or have the right friends get paid a lot of dough by the 1 Percent of people who themselves have so much money they don’t know what to do with it.
Why does this matter? Not only are Bill and Hillary mostly retired from public life, but as I’m sure a flurry of disappointed emailers will be reminding me throughout the day, Donald Trump did 100 things that were each 10 times worse than this. That’s true, but Trump will be (hopefully!) soon leaving 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for a new president, and I very much don’t want to see Joe Biden repeat the mistakes that, well, gave us Trump.
In selecting a Cabinet and White House staff of smart and not-well-known Washington insiders who mostly attended Ivy League schools, Biden’s approach to stocking his government is already running into what one might call the Doug Band Syndrome.
In fact, after their years as top-level Obama administration aides, Biden’s pick for secretary of state Antony Blinken, director of national intelligence nominee Avril Haines, his once-favored-now-spurned candidate for the Pentagon Michèle Flournoy, and at least three other Team Biden members all worked for WestExec Advisors, which, according to the New York Times, “helps companies navigate global risks and the political and procedural ins and outs of Washington.” In other words, what WestExec does is just as clear as Band’s Teneo.
That is, not clear at all — other than to prove that access in Washington can be worth a lot of money. Even though Trump made a mockery out of the phrase “drain the swamp,” there’s also a reason why those words resonated with angry voters enough to get such a demagogue elected president in 2016. If Biden goes too far in hiring the cosmopolitan cash-in circuit for his administration, the 2024 attack ads will write themselves.
It may already be too late, but now would be a good time for the next president to be the one to really start draining the actual Washington wetlands. In 2019, the Democratic-led House passed a bill, the For the People Act, that included a sweeping array of good-government reforms such as stricter “revolving door” rules on administration officials going to work in regulated industries, and new limits on “shadow lobbying” that’s now being done by these vague D.C. consulting firms. Biden, if given a Senate he can work with, can make this law a reality, but he should also set a good example by hiring public servants, not cash cows. Leaving the capital’s putrid oil slick of a swamp in place will be a good excuse for right-wing populists to keep throwing matches.
Dick Allen — or “Richie Allen,” as the white announcers and then everyone else called the young slugger when he arrived at Connie Mack Stadium in 1964 — wasn’t the first African-American to play for the painfully-slow-to-integrate Phillies, but he was their first Black superstar. That meant he became a ridiculously unfair vortex for Philadelphia’s smoldering racial animus in the 1960s — so much so that at times he wore a batting helmet to protect himself from projectiles as he played outfield at the old ballyard in Swampoodle. Allen himself said little at the time, but years later he’d recall that his high profile “made me a threat to white people, especially since I said what was on my mind. They weren’t used to a black athlete like that.”
As the years passed and Philly’s race-baiters moved onto other subjects, real fans began to pine for what Allen had brought to 21st and Lehigh in the stadium’s last years — his towering, majestic home runs. Despite rivals such as Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, Allen put up baseball’s best slugging numbers from 1964-74. Finally recognized and embraced by the city that once spurned him when the Phillies retired his No. 15 in a ceremony this past season, Allen still faced one last inexplicable snub — his lack of election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. With his chances rising, the vote was postponed by the coronavirus until early next year — and then Allen died Monday at the age of 78. That Allen didn’t live to see his induction is a disgrace, but his memory is a blessing to all of us lucky enough to have to seen No. 15 absolutely murder a fastball.
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In my Sunday column, I looked at the week’s hot-button issue: The outgoing President Trump’s abuses of his pardon power — a form of corruption America’s Founders didn’t fully anticipate. I stressed that not only has Trump given too many of his pals the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card, but he’s also failed to use the pardon for why it actually exists, to grant some mercy to the victims of America’s mass incarceration.
Dick Allen wasn’t the only sports giant that Philadelphia lost this week. For years as a columnist in the pages of the Daily News, John Smallwood was a much-needed steady and contrarian voice, with the added bonus of a surprising soft spot for soccer when the sport was being mocked by the WIP crowd. Smallwood passed away this weekend after battling ill health; he was just 55, with a wife and teenage daughter. You can — and should — read some of his columns here.
So much has happened this fall that you may well have forgotten about the October night when — amid the unrest prompted by the police shooting of Walter Wallace — nightstick-wielding Philly cops smashed up a van and yanked out a 2-year-old toddler while arresting the mom who was simply trying to turn around. But the Inquirer’s Anna Orso didn’t forget. She published a lengthy and horrifying account of how the brutal event has rattled a family. Accountability journalism like that can make Philadelphia a better, safer place to live. Support it by subscribing to the Inquirer.