Ethics Quiz: Should the State Department Be Buying and Distributing the President’s Books?

It's a State Department...and a nifty literary agent too!

It’s a little early for another Ethics Quiz, but this one is tailor-made.

The Washington Times reported today that The State Department has bought more than $70,000 worth of  books authored by President Obama. Hillary’s folks have been sending out copies as Christmas gifts, and stocking  libraries around the world with “Dreams from My Father.”  For example, the  U.S. Embassy in Egypt spent $28,636 in August 2009 for copies of the best-selling 1995 memoir, six weeks after it had placed another order for the same book for more than $9,000. At the same time, the U.S. Embassy in South Korea spent more than  $6,000 for its copies of “Dreams from My Father.” All of this comes from federal purchasing records.

The Times points out that the previous  State Departments resisted the impulse to buy books by former Presidents George W. Bush or Bill Clinton.

Are you ready for your Ethics Quiz? It’s a multiple choice:

For the State Department to spend $70,000 on its boss’s book is….

a) A waste of money

b) A conflict of interest

c) An appearance of impropriety

d) Stupid

e) Fine and dandy.

The State Department defends the purchases, stating through a spokesperson that…

“The structure and the presidency of the United States is an integral component of representing the United States overseas.We often use books to engage key audiences in discussions of foreign policy.”

Meanwhile,  the Citizens Against Government Waste, a non-partisan watchdog group, cried foul. “It’s inappropriate for U.S. taxpayer dollars to be spent on this,” a spokeswoman said. “This sounds like propaganda.”

Then there are the ethical issues. A CEO whose company started buying large numbers of his or her book with company funds would have some explaining to do: it is a fairly classic conflict of interest. The author/CEO is not going to be objective about the book’s value, and he is also getting royalties from company expenditures. Government ethics regulations are particularly strict about avoiding the appearance of impropriety, and this doesn’t look especially good.

The Times notes that there is no indication that President Obama knew about the purchases, not that changes appearances. He is ultimately accountable, if not responsible.

My answer? I pick  e). President Obama has a particularly compelling story, and I defer to the State Department regarding the book’s usefulness in diplomacy. I’m sure the President’s royalties are already designated to some charity, but he should  clarify that to remove any doubt.

Move along, folks.

Nothing to see here!

8 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Should the State Department Be Buying and Distributing the President’s Books?

  1. I have to go with (b) and (c) because of the precedent it sets.

    The next President who writes a book (and who doesn’t nowadays) will have carte blanche to have the government buy it in greater numbers, and without a charity, and without the book itself being compelling, a first, and/or historical. Because President Obama did it.

    …not to mention the next CEO/Author who does exactly what you describe.


  2. My answer is also E – and I agree President Obama should issue a statement that the proceeds are going to charity.

    Gift-giving from embassies is common practice and I think it’s far better to give this kind of a gift than something useless, and potentially far more expensive.

  3. I say (a) a waste of money; (b) a conflict of interest, and (c) appearance of impropriety. These “gifts” to foreign nations are given TO SUPPORT OBAMA, not teach them anything about the United States or provide some insights into the workings of America. It is Obama’s story — and I don’t even know who, if anyone, has vetted it — and the story of one US president can’t shed much light on our nation as a whole.

    The State Department is spending US money on this — a relatively small amount, but a great example of our President’s egotism. I want proof that he is sending his royalties (for books bought by his own administration!) to charity, and to which charity/ies he sends them to. That would also be telling.

    • You might want to check Dick Cheney’s resume. There may have been some VP’s with more extensive and relevant experience in Government, but not many. His CEO experience could only be a plus—it’s called management. Bush was the successful governor of a large state. 3 or the previous 4 Presidents had been governors. He would not have been nominated if he was the head of the Texas Rangers. This is a really poor argument.

  4. O.k., I think it is a waste of money for our government to buy books of any kind and distribute them around the world. $70,000 is small potatos as far as government expenditures, but that money could help the U.S. in better ways. The U.S. already gives too much money away. Is it ethical? It is at least transparent.

    As far as Cheney and Bush are concerned, their service to the U.S. and their oaths to the office is suspect. That is my complaint of big money in today’s politics. Cheney does have an impressive resume. He may be a nice guy. But I don’t like him or trust him. Pretty much the same with Mr. Bush.

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