Hillary’s Book Deal Will Pose a Dilemma

You don’t have to be a hypocritical Clinton-hater to be concerned about Hillary Clinton’s lucrative relationship with Viacom.

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s $8 million book contract has been greeted with what might be called the usual hypocrisy. The same Republican conservatives who defended (or discreetly ignored) the $4.5 million publishing contract signed by Newt Gingrich in 1995 are, of course, outraged five years later. The same liberal Democrats who demanded a special prosecutor for him back then are now silent about her.

But you don’t have to be a hypocritical Clinton-hater to be concerned about her lucrative relationship with Viacom, the parent company of her publisher, Simon & Schuster. When Mrs. Clinton enters the Senate, she will repeatedly face decisions about taxes and regulations that affect the giant media conglomerate. She should offer a better answer than her press secretary’s pro forma reassurance that she has observed all the relevant Senate rules.

That is not to say that the Gingrich and Clinton deals are the same. Despite lazy-minded comparisons between them in much of the recent media coverage and commentary, they are strikingly different in both appearance and detail.

Mr. Gingrich was already among the three most powerful figures in Washington when he accepted an offer from HarperCollins, the publishing arm of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. He had never written a book, let alone a best seller. He met with Mr. Murdoch to discuss News Corporation’s most pressing regulatory problems while his agent was negotiating with HarperCollins. He rejected an initial $2 million offer from the company and sent his agent back to get more. And Mr. Murdoch had previously misused book contracts to encourage favorable treatment of News Corporation by political leaders in Beijing and London.

Mrs. Clinton, by contrast, will be merely one of 100 Senators, and she has worked out her publishing arrangements before taking office. More significantly, her agent conducted an open bidding process which resulted in a big but not wholly unprecedented sale, considering what public figures like Colin Powell ($6 million), Norman Schwarzkopf ($5 million) and Pope John Paul II ($8.5 million) were paid for their books. She wasn’t being lobbied at the time of the sale by Viacom executives who, despite all their efforts to influence government, have no Murdochian history of using book deals to get their way. Besides, she is already the successful author of two best sellers.

All such differences aside, there remains the broader issue of any elected official accepting such an enormous emolument from a corporate special interest. With regard to books-as opposed to other business deals-the strictures against conflict of interest pose a special problem. In general, book-writing by public officials is a good thing, no matter how bad such literature often is, if only because it provides insights and arguments that enrich democratic discourse. In Mrs. Clinton’s case, she certainly has every right and reason to set down a memoir. Literally dozens of books-including more than a few that were vicious and inaccurate-have been written about her. She deserves an opportunity to reply at equal length and to earn the market value for her effort. (Those earnings may even be regarded as just recompense for the huge legal costs she incurred as the target of fruitless, partisan investigations.)

It seems mildly ridiculous to point a finger at Mrs. Clinton’s book deal, anyway, at a time when politicians regularly solicit and accept so much cash from corporate special interests to finance their campaigns. Even so, her deal understandably raises eyebrows, and not only because of the amount involved.

According to a study last spring by the Center for Public Integrity and the Columbia Journalism Review, Viacom and its CBS subsidiary are among the top five spenders on lobbying in the media industry. Its concerns range from regulation of mergers, satellite broadcasting and televised violence to taxation of the Internet. Its lobbyists helped to kill the President’s courageous 1998 proposal that broadcasters be required to provide free air time to political candidates as a condition of their license. That idea, which probably cannot be achieved without Congressional approval, remains the foundation for real campaign-finance reform.

So what should Mrs. Clinton do? The nonpartisan Congressional Accountability Project has asked her to seek guidance from the Senate Ethics Committee, while the ultraconservative Landmark Legal Foundation has urged that she give up the $8 million advance and accept only royalties instead, as Mr. Gingrich was eventually forced to do. Neither of those suggestions is likely to work. The Senate Ethics Committee rarely serves any truly useful purpose. And depending on royalty statements from Simon & Schuster won’t resolve the ethical dilemma.

Recusing herself from votes that directly affect Viacom might be a solution, but that would place a severe handicap on a Senator who represents the world’s media center. Whatever course she chooses, Mrs. Clinton owes herself the chance to begin a promising new chapter without any hint of impropriety.