As an American with a respect for the country's institutions, I'd like to have enjoyed a degree of pride in a presidential visit to my adopted country.

That impulse is thwarted when I see the sort of media frenzy evoked by ex-President Obama. And not just the breathless media treatment of him like a rock star, but everything else that separates him from ordinary citizens.

There's the super-posh surroundings, the exclusionary golf games and the careful isolation of his person from any but elite invitees.

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Then there's the matter of his fees. His speech was to net him $500,000 — more in a hour or so than an entire year's salary when he was actually my president. All of this show that undermines the illusion that a president is, after all, one of the people.

The respect I have had is for his office. But the well compensated superstar trappings undermine respect for the man.

In 1953, when President Harry S. Truman left office he had no income or support of any kind from the federal government other than his army pension of $112.56 a month. He was provided with no government funds for secretarial help or office space, not a penny of expense money.

Truman had presided over the end of WWII, the creation of the UN, the Marshall Plan to reconstruct Europe. His executive order integrated the US military.

Truman received offers of corporate board seats for six figures but refused all and said he would never lend himself "to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialise the prestige and dignity of the office."

He was saved from penury by selling his memoirs to Life magazine, following the precedent of President Ulysses Grant, hero of the Civil War. Obama's own record doesn't place him in either man's company.

Obama was not the first to trade in on his presidential mana but his speaking fees of $500,000, here and the next $500,000 in Australia predict his exceeding those who came before.

That includes Bill Clinton who has earned over $100 million doing it.
While some may congratulate themselves, feeling enhanced that a former president has deigned to visit New Zealand, the fact of those hefty speaking fees ought to bring us back to earth.

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Ex-presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton have lent the supposed prestige of office for six figures to the like of Saudi Arabia, China and Russia.

Even more questionable were such paid appearances in front of numerous corporations. George Bush charged the veteran's charity, Wounded Warriors $100,000 to appear at an event.

Even more egregious has been presidents renting out a patina of respectability by appearing at events for banks like UBS, which have admitted guilt under deferred prosecution agreements for crimes like money laundering for the Taliban and rigging US financial markets.

The market for big money speeches is widening as Hillary Clinton comes here in May to explain to anyone willing to pay $195 why she isn't president.

Selling of the post-presidential presence began with Gerald Ford, but the more recent group has carried these activities to new lows, the money to new heights.

There are no rules governing this shabby behaviour and no requirement for disclosure. Professor Stephen Strauss of Princeton, recommending such rules, calls the current situation a national disgrace.

As President, Barack Obama sarcastically admonished the media for its tendency to be distracted "by bright shiny objects", implying that the formal news outlets were choosing form over substance, titillation over information.

His own visit here arouses the media's slavish attention, but the irony is that Obama, who, as ex-president, is essentially without power, is himself that shiny object.
There was a time when people sought public office as a calling, to serve others, for a brief time, then returning to civil life.

Now it's become a career and a stepping stone at every level, including the highest, to personal fortune.

From integrity we've descended to money-grubbing. Now all we're left with are shiny objects.


Jay Kuten is an American-trained forensic psychiatrist who emigrated to New Zealand for the fly fishing. He spent 40 years comforting the afflicted and intends to spend the rest afflicting the comfortable.