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2016 Elections

When Did Hillary Clinton Stop Being 'Dead Broke'?

Hillary Clinton speaks during a keynote session in San Francisco on April 8

Photograph by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Hillary Clinton speaks during a keynote session in San Francisco on April 8

Hillary Clinton’s memoir, Hard Choices, just out today, serves a simple purpose: It’s a soft launch of her likely presidential campaign that generates loads of attention in exactly the way she wants—as an author, she gets to control the message—and cleans up some old messes, such as her Iraq war vote, along the way. But as Clinton’s interview last night with Diane Sawyer revealed, she’s a little rusty after six years away from the campaign trail. Sawyer’s surprisingly tough interrogation yielded, among other things, Clinton’s contention that she and Bill were “dead broke” when they left the White House in 2000:

“We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt,” Clinton said. “We had no money when we got there, and we struggled to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages, for houses, for Chelsea’s education. You know, it was not easy.”

Politically, this was tone deaf, and Clinton quickly moved to “clarify” her statement. Yet it’s basically true: The Clintons needed their friend, Terry McAuliffe, now governor of Virginia, to buy their house in Chappaqua, N.Y., because they didn’t have enough money. Still, even at that time nobody would have bought the assertion that the Clintons were “dead broke.”

In fact, it’s possible to pinpoint exactly when the American public stopped believing the Clintons needed financial help. It was the first week in July 2001. Why then? Because that’s when the Clinton Legal Expense Trust—the fundraising vehicle established to help pay their legal bills—shut down. As it happens, I used to work next door to the one-man office of the Clinton Legal Expense Trust, which was located above a magic shop in a seedy downtown Washington building, and I got to know the proprietor. (I wrote about it here.) By July 2001, the trust had raised precisely $8,760,620.19 for the Clintons. But with the news that the Clintons had bought homes in Chappaqua and Washington, the checks stopped coming and the trust closed up shop. Americans had stopped seeing the couple as “dead broke.”

Green is senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.

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