Colin Powell’s foundation and Hillary Clinton’s are treated very differently by the media
By Matthew Yglesias, August 30, 2016
In 1997, after a distinguished career in military service that culminated with stints as national security adviser under Ronald Reagan and chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Colin Powell launched a charity. Named America’s Promise, it’s built around the theme of Five Promises to America’s children. And while I’ve never heard it praised as a particularly cost-effective way to help humanity by effective altruists, it was surely a reasonably good cause for a famous and politically popular man to dedicate himself to.
Needless to say, however, Powell continued to be involved in American political life. His sky-high poll numbers ensured he’d be buzzed about as a possible presidential or vice presidential nominee, either as a moderate Republican or as an independent. Realistically, that wasn’t in the cards, and Powell was smart enough to know it. But his support for George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign lent him valuable credibility, and his recruitment to serve as Bush’s first secretary of state was considered an important political and substantive coup by Bush.
So what about the charity? Well, Powell’s wife, Alma Powell, took it over. And it kept raking in donations from corporate America. Ken Lay, the chair of Enron, was a big donor. He also backed a literacy-related charity that was founded by the then-president’s mother. The US Department of State, at the time Powell was secretary, went to bat for Enron in a dispute the company was having with the Indian government.
Did Lay or any other Enron official attempt to use their connections with Alma Powell (or Barbara Bush, for that matter) to help secure access to State Department personnel in order to voice these concerns? Did any other donors to America’s Promise? I have no idea, because to the best of my knowledge nobody in the media ever launched an extensive investigation into these matters. That’s the value of the presumption of innocence, something Hillary Clinton has never been able to enjoy during her time in the national spotlight.
The value of the presumption of innocence
Because Colin Powell did not have the reputation in the mid- to late ’90s of being a corrupt or shady character, his decision to launch a charity in 1997 was considered laudable. Nobody would deny that the purpose of the charity was, in part, to keep his name in the spotlight and keep his options open for future political office. Nor would anybody deny that this wasn’t exactly a case of Powell having super-relevant expertise. What he had to offer was basically celebrity and his good name. By supporting Powell’s charity, your company could participate in Powell’s halo.
But when the press thinks of you as a good guy, leveraging your good reputation in this way is considered a good thing to do. And since the charity was considered a good thing to do, keeping the charity going when Powell was in office as secretary of state was also considered a good thing to do. And since Powell was presumed to be innocent — and since Democrats did not make attacks on Powell part of their partisan strategy — his charity was never the subject of a lengthy investigation.
Which is lucky for him, because as Clinton could tell you, once you are the subject of a lengthy investigation, the press doesn’t like to report, “Well, we looked into it and we didn’t find anything interesting.”
Instead we get things like:
- An Associated Press investigation whose big reveal is that Clinton once tried to help out a Nobel Peace Prize winner who was in hot water with the ruling party of his home country.
- An LA Times story headlined “Billionaire’s Clinton Ties Face Scrutiny,” about a rich Lebanese-Nigerian man who appears to be genuinely somewhat shady, gave money to the Clinton Foundation, and received nothing in exchange.
- A Wall Street Journal story about how the crown prince of Bahrain scored a meeting with Hillary Clinton years after having donated to the Clinton Foundation. The story somehow forgets to mention that Rice, Powell, Madeleine Albright, and Warren Christopher had all also met with him during their tenures as secretary of state
- An ABC investigation that concluded a donor had used a foundation connection to get a better seating assignment at State Department function.
Three of these stories, in other words, found no wrongdoing whatsoever but chose to insinuate that they had found wrongdoing in order to make the stories seem more interesting. The AP even teased its story with a flagrantly inaccurate tweet, which it now concedes was inaccurate but won’t take down or correct. The final investigation into the seat assignments at least came up with something, but it’s got to be just about the most trivial piece of donor special treatment you can think of.
Did one of Alma Powell’s donors ever ask for a better seat at a Powell-era function? Nobody knows, because nobody would think to ask.
Hillary’s problem is people "know" she’s corrupt
The perception that Clinton is corrupt is one of her most profound handicaps as a politician. And what’s particularly crippling about it is that evidence of her corruption is so widespread exactly because everyone knows she’s corrupt.
Because people “know” that she is corrupt, every decision she makes and every relationship she has is cast in the most negative possible light. When she doesn’t allow her policy decisions to be driven by donors, she’s greeted by headlines like “Hillary Blasts For-Profit Colleges, But Bill Took Millions From One.”
AT&T is one of the very biggest donors to America’s Promise, and for much of the Bush administration, Colin and Alma’s son Michael was chair of the Federal Communications Commission, which, among other things, regulates AT&T. I never saw anyone write a story investigating whether AT&T’s donations improperly influenced Powell’s pro-telecom regulatory stances. But it’s genuinely unimaginable that if Powell had chosen not to help AT&T with regulatory matters the press would have blasted him as a hypocrite. That would have been ridiculous.
But once you “know” that a putative charity is really just a nexus of corruption, then even the failure to be swayed by contributions becomes a news story. And of course once your decision-making is put under that kind of scrutiny, your impulse is to shut down and try to keep information close to your chest. But when you “know” that a person is corrupt, her lack of transparency is further evidence of corruption. And any minor information that does slip out is defined as news, even if the information does not actually contain evidence of anything all that interesting.
The press should contextualize Clinton stories
Hillary Clinton is running for president. Her opponent, Donald Trump, is unusually weak and will probably lose. Scrutinizing her, her activities, and her associations is appropriate, and it’s difficult for any responsible citizen to argue that the likely next most powerful person on the planet is under too much scrutiny.
But the mere fact of scrutiny can be misleading.
It’s natural to assume that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. But the smoke emanating from the Clinton Foundation is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. It is the result of a reasonably well-funded dedicated partisan opposition research campaign, and of editorial decisions by the managers of major news organizations to dedicate resources to running down every possible Clinton email lead in the universe.
Whatever one thinks of that decision, it’s at least appropriate to ask editors and writers to put their findings on these matters into some kind of context for readers’ benefit. To the extent that Clinton is an example of the routinized way in which economic elites exert disproportionate voice in the political process, that’s a story worth telling. But it’s a very different story from a one in which Clinton is a uniquely corrupt specimen operating with wildly unusual financial arrangements and substantive practices.
Much of what we’ve seen over the past 18 months is journalists doing reporting that supports the former story, and then writing leads and headlines that imply the latter. But people deserve to know what’s actually going on.