Judging by the YouTube video of his tedious speech about President Obama's 2008 campaign, one would never guess that David Plouffe, who managed that campaign, was being paid $100,000 for his oratory. But that's what the South Africa-based MTN Group paid Plouffe for two speeches he gave in Lagos, Nigeria, in December 2010, just days before he officially became a senior adviser to Obama in the White House.
Even in a place as far removed from digital U.S. politics as Nigeria, Plouffe's discussion of the role of social media was pretty bland stuff. "Barack Obama would not have been elected president of the United States, in all likelihood, without technology," he said. "And that's the first time you can ever say that, certainly the first time in American political history." (Those who remember the advent of television, phone-banking and automated mail-sorting can be forgiven for scratching their heads at that one.)
But if MTN managed to secure itself a friendly ear in the Obama White House -- as so many other companies have done through campaign giving -- then that six-figure payout might have been worth making. Other than that, we are unaware of any other reason for paying so much for a speech from a known but still relatively minor figure in U.S. politics.
It wasn't just some bad green energy deal that was at stake for MTN at that time, either. When the Washington Post first reported on Plouffe's speech and payout, much was made of MTN Group's involvement in a joint venture with Iran's Revolutionary Guard. At that time, a consensus was still forming around just how strong the international sanctions against Iran should be. Obviously, the White House has a major voice on that question -- Obama was in the midst of approving a range of new sanctions against Iran throughout 2010 and 2011.
The White House's subsequent spin was that Plouffe didn't know about this connection at the time because it wasn't common knowledge, even though it had been reported in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Even assuming this is true, what on earth was a longtime top adviser to a president doing taking six-figure payouts from a mysterious foreign company without so much as Googling to see if it's on the up-and-up? Does Plouffe have such a high opinion of his own speaking skills that he didn't think to ask why this company was hiring him to speak?
Most White House insiders wait to do this sort of thing until they retire from public service, or at least until their work for an administration has ended for good. But Plouffe couldn't wait to cash in on his insider status. As it happens, this was just the sort of insider dealing that Obama spoke out against repeatedly when Plouffe managed his first presidential campaign. But after winning an election, campaign promises are forgotten as quickly as Plouffe's stemwinder in Nigeria.