Seen the latest front-page Jimmy Carter Center scandal? Hear about the six-figure speaking fees former president Carter pulls in from shady companies and foreign governments? The oil painting of himself he bought with charity money?
Take a moment to Google Jimmy Carter. Now do the same for Bill Clinton. The search results tell the tale of two former presidents, one determined to use his status honorably, the other (along with his wife) exploiting it for personal benefit. And then throw in Donald Trump, who of course wants to someday be a former president.
Each man—Carter, Clinton, and Trump—has his own charitable foundation. Let’s compare them.
The Carter administration carries an uneven legacy. But most people agree Carter has been a better ex-president than he was a president. His Carter Center charity focuses on impactful but unglamorous issues such as Guinea worm disease. When Carter left office, the disease afflicted 3.5 million people, mostly in Africa. Now it’s expected to be only the second disease, after smallpox, to be eradicated worldwide.
Carter, 90, still donates a week of his time each year to Habitat for Humanity. It’s not a photo-op: Carter travels without the media in tow and hammers nails. Carter also tirelessly monitors elections in nascent democracies, lending his stature to that work over 100 times already. Summing up his own term in office, Carter said, “We never dropped a bomb. We never fired a bullet. We never went to war.” He is the last president who can make that claim.
Bill Clinton pushed the NAFTA agreement through, seen now by many as a mistake that continues to cost American jobs. He pointlessly bombed Iraq and sent troops into Somalia (see Black Hawk Down). But Clinton’s legacy lies most of all in his having an affair with an intern, lying about it, and then ending up one of only two American presidents ever impeached as a result.
As a former president, Clinton is nothing if not true to his un-statesmanlike form. Bill makes six-figure speeches to businesses seeking influence within the U.S. government, earning as much as $50 million during his wife’s term as secretary of state alone. He used a shell company to hide some of the income.
His own charity, humbly named the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation, is $2 billion financial tangle. Instead of volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, Bill takes his big donors on executive safaris to Africa. Many of the foundation’s donors also give generously to the Hillary Clinton campaign and its constellation of PACs. And in her time as secretary of state, more than half of the meetings Clinton took with private interests were with Clinton Foundation donors.
Trump refuses to be very specific about whom his organizations donate to. We know one off-shoot, the Eric Trump charity, donated to a wine industry association, a plastic surgeon gifting nose jobs to kids, and an artist who painted a portrait of Donald Trump himself. Trump-owned golf resorts received $880,000 for hosting Trump charity events.
Reports show Trump also donated money from his foundation to conservative influencers ahead of his presidential bid, effectively using funds intended for charity to support his own political ambitions. The New York attorney general ordered Donald Trump’s charity to immediately halt fundraising in the state following reports that it had not submitted to routine audits.
Voters should judge a candidate not just on examples of past competency, but with an eye toward the core things that really matter: character, values, honesty, humility, and selflessness.
Perhaps this tale of the Clinton and Trump charities, and of the somewhat-forgotten Carter Center, has a lesson in it for 2016: don’t forget when looking at the two major party candidates this November that there is always a third way.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during the “reconstruction” of Iraq in his book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. He writes about current events at We Meant Well.