Bottom line: Clintons can afford N.Y.

Income: Book deals and speeches will provide a comfortable living after the first family leaves the White House, despite a mound of legal debts.

August 17, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman and Ellen Gamerman | Jonathan Weisman and Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As potential Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton narrows her house-hunting search to the tony New York City suburbs of Westchester County, the question of exactly which multimillion-dollar estate she will choose is upstaging another, equally crucial detail: How on earth will she pay for it?

The Clintons, the presidential couple with the highest legal debts in history, initially took an interest in properties approaching $4 million, with horse pastures and winding private driveways that keep the riffraff away. But more recently -- including the first family's swing through Westchester over the weekend -- they have looked over homes at roughly half that price in more modest neighborhoods.

"They're back in the real world, as opposed to some of the earlier houses," said a longtime friend.

A seven-digit home, though, still requires a major money-maker in the family. One solution: The president will finally be the bread-winner, a duty that has previously fallen to his wife. Should she win her expected bid for the Senate, the president would slide into that role -- one that literary agents and public relations experts believe he will master with boy-from-Hope motivational speeches and gold-plated book deals.

And so the Clintons, a family saddled with $10.5 million in legal debts, are looking at homes posh enough to go by their own names (the family toured "Brokenwood," listed at $2.3 million, in Rye Brook on Sunday).

The Clintons may be eyeing seven-digit properties -- and this month will be summering alongside Hollywood royalty in the Hamptons -- but at the moment, their checkbook hardly sustains the high life. After all, friends note, the couple also support the first lady's mother and pay their daughter's tuition at Stanford University, not to mention the bills for their food, clothing and other incidentals at the White House.

The Clintons' gross income last year was $505,109. While impressive, $200,318 of that sum came from the liquidation of a blind trust to help pay a legal settlement to Paula Corbin Jones. That was a one-time windfall.

The Clintons have not paid for their own home in years. Unlike the Reagans, with their ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif., or the Bushes, with their compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, the Clinton family always retreats to a series of friends' homes.

But public relations experts envision Clinton filling college auditoriums and corporate conventions with lucrative speeches. Literary agents see potential bidding wars over the chance to publish the memoirs of a president with a scandal-tarred past, a long history of national policy-making, and a stubbornly loyal following.

Meanwhile, the president's legal defense fund has raised $6.3 million, well over half the family's legal debts, fund managers announced last week. And some lawyers in Washington are suggesting that some of the remaining debt could be forgiven once Clinton leaves office.

That is because the lawyers who have represented Clinton -- especially David E. Kendall of Williams & Connolly, his lead private attorney in the impeachment saga -- have capitalized on the publicity resulting from months of exposure.

Clinton's literary agent, Robert B. Barnett, also happens to be a lawyer at Williams & Connolly, raising speculation that the president could easily pay part of his legal debts from the proceeds of a book deal after he leaves office.

Presidential book contracts are historically lucrative. Ronald Reagan earned $7 million for his autobiography, "An American Life," along with a compendium of ghost-written speeches from his White House days. Nancy Reagan received a $2 million advance for her memoir, "My Turn."

Hillary Clinton has already turned down a $5 million book offer, according to Talk magazine.

The president "will easily make millions on publishing alone," said Jerry Hirsch, a former vice president at the public relations giant Ruder Finn.

Not everyone is so sure. Rafe Sagalyn, a Washington-area literary agent, said the Reagan book deal has gone down in the annals of literary history as a colossal blunder by its publisher, Simon & Schuster. As a result, a $7 million advance might not be in the works for Clinton.

But books are only the beginning. Though some publishers may be wary of record-setting advances, speaking fees have become more lucrative since 1989, when Reagan earned $2 million for two 20-minute speeches and a few public appearances in Japan.

After he stepped down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin L. Powell began earning $100,000 to $250,000 a speech on the college circuit, Hirsch noted. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich earns up to $50,000 per appearance. Sam Donaldson, the ABC News reporter, commands speaking fees of $20,000.

"Clinton will be the most popular former president on the college tour," Hirsch predicted

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