In her book on political corruption, lefty Zehyr Teachout reminds us of the time when Louis XVI presented Benjamin Franklin with a snuff box encrusted with diamonds and inset with the King’s portrait. According to Teachout, the gift troubled Americans: it threatened to “corrupt” Franklin by clouding his judgment or altering his attitude toward the French in subtle psychological ways.
Moving from the subtle, at worst, to the gross, at best, we learn from former University of Pennsylvania trustee Peter Levy writing in the Wall Street Journal that after Biden left the vice presidency in 2017, Penn created the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and appointed Biden to the bespoke position of Benjamin Franklin Presidential Practice Professor. Penn paid Professor Biden $371,159 in 2017 and $540,484 in 2018 and early 2019 before Professor Biden retired from teaching and launched his presidential campaign.
In short, Penn paid Biden nearly a cool million over two years for the privilege of associating his name with Benjamin Franklin and the university. Professor Biden served “a vaguely defined role that involved no regular classes and around a dozen public appearances on campus, mostly in big, ticketed events” (here Levy was quoting the Philadelphia Inquirer story reporting the arrangement).
To adapt Teachout’s formulation, Biden’s gratitude appears to have affected him in unsubtle psychological ways. Biden has nominated Penn president Amy Gutmann as ambassador to Germany and Penn board chairman David L. Cohen as ambassador to Canada. Levy adds:
Ms. Gutmann isn’t a donor. Mr. Cohen and his wife, Rhonda, gave more than half a million dollars to Democratic campaigns and political organizations between 2017 and 2020, according to OpenSecrets.org. That includes the maximum $11,200 to the Biden campaign and $50,000 to the Biden Victory Fund, according to the Federal Election Commission database. (Mr. Cohen also donated a smaller amount to Republican candidates and organizations.)
Rewarding big contributors with ambassadorships is traditional. Referring to Biden’s “employment” by Penn, however, Levy credits Penn and Biden with “an innovation in the practice.” Following the news as closely as I do, I am surprised to find this story spelled out only in a brief column on the Journal’s opinion pages.