Despite 'staggering' debt, Clintons aren't so bad off

The president's supporters step up their giving, easing millions inlegal bills.

With $10 million in legal bills, Bill Clinton for a time had little more than a failed legal defense fund and a comparatively small income to assure his many lawyers that he could pay off his legal debts.

His income amounted to the $200,000 paycheck from the American people, and $76 dollars in royalties he still gets for playing the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show during the 1992 presidential campaign.

Yet the gap between what Mr. Clinton makes and what he owes - he is the most indebted president in history - is persuading thousands of sympathetic Americans to grab their checkbooks to support him one more time.

In fact, the picture of a destitute president hobbled forever by legal bills incurred while doing the "people's business" may not be fully accurate. Most experts say the president and first lady will have more potential earning power once they leave office than perhaps any of their predecessors - reducing the personal toll the scandal has taken on their finances.

"It won't take them long to dig their way out. They'll be making big bucks fast," says Ryan Barilleaux, a political scientist at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. "They'll pay it off in a few years either through contributions or with their own earning power."

Indeed, a recent direct mailing from a second legal defense fund, citing the first family's "staggering personal debt," garnered more than $4.5 million, helping to erase more than half of the president's legal bills.

Even with the crisis of the impeachment trial past, an event that catalyzed target donors, Clinton supporters forecast a robust flow of donations. They think a payoff of the legal debt once believed to be his personal ruin may now be in sight. "I think it's reachable," says Anthony Essaye, director of the Clinton Legal Expense Trust. "We are pleased with our success so far."

The current legal trust has paid the debt down to $5.2 million, according to recently released documents. That includes $800,000 raised from a previous legal defense fund and the recent money taken in by the second group. The president owes the money to attorneys at three law firms who have defended him in the Whitewater investigation, the Paula Jones sexual-harassment suit, and most recently, in the Senate impeachment process.

Still, a number of factors are at work that may not only help the Clintons pay off their debts shortly after leaving office, but may help them retire in the millionaire club.

The Clintons are still a powerful draw, deft in the art of soliciting donations for either themselves or the party. In Los Angeles Friday, Clinton pulled in $200,000 for the Democratic National Committee. The first lady will raise big money for the party this week in New York.

Both are expected to be better positioned than others who retired from politics with debts, including astronaut hero John Glenn who still owes money from a 1984 presidential bid. Clinton is also one of the youngest retiring presidents in US history. Given his age, he has decades of prime earning potential. The lucrative avenues that traditionally present themselves to former presidents are many. Corporate boards, for example, seek their presence. Moreover, the speaking circuit can pay six figures for a single night's work.

The first lady also has a range of options open to her. As an indicator of her value on the open market, tax records show she took in more than $840,000 in royalties from her book, "It Takes a Village." Mrs. Clinton donated all the proceeds to charity.

In addition to authoring books, she too could hit the speaking circuit. There are other possibilities as well.

"One of the interesting unintended consequences that keep her from being appointed to a position of power ... is that she is not covered by ethics rules," says Mr. Barilleaux. "She could become a lobbyist."

Like former Reagan staffer Michael Deaver, she could lobby former associates - especially if Vice President Al Gore succeeds Clinton in the Oval Office.

Unusual though it might seem, the more charges are leveled against the president about his personal misconduct, the better positioned he seems to be to draw money. The next direct-mail effort will target 600,000 Americans. "Direct mail usually only works when there is an intense feeling around an issue," says Ted Van Dyk, a former Democratic adviser. "Direct [mail] money does not come back on bland issues."

The current mailing asks donors, "If you are disturbed by the way politics is conducted today, then what better response than to offer the first family your own gesture of support?"

The question hit a chord with 50,000 Americans who donated amounts ranging from $5 to the legal limit of $10,000. One retiree from rural Oklahoma cut a check for $500. Most of the donations, nearly 36,000, were made out for under $100. Deep-pocketed Hollywood and New York donors contributed the most.

While it's all likely to amount to a debt-free slate for the Clintons by the time they move from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., associates who have been forced to pay huge legal fees will not reap any benefits. Clinton in the past has promised to help some of those close to him who incurred large legal debt. But any left over money from his trust would not cover anyone else.

"The legal defense trust is constituted only to cover the Clintons," says White House spokesman Jim Kennedy.

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