Pardons one step too far for Clinton
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001
WASHINGTON -- Even Bill Clinton's friends -- the ones who defended him during the Gennifer Flowers, Whitewater, Lincoln Bedroom and Monica Lewinsky scandals -- are walking away from him.
The ex-president's controversial pardons of Marc Rich and others have so seriously offended the Democratic Party establishment that even Clinton loyalist James Carville refuses to talk about it, the always-forgiving former President Carter is outraged and veteran Clinton defender, New York Sen. Charles Schumer, says the former president's explanation is unconvincing.
What is it about these pardons that has finally soured an army of admiring Clintonites who once seemed utterly unmoved by any shocking development in the scandal-scarred history of the nation's 42nd president?
Stephen Hess, presidential scholar at liberal think tank the Brookings Institution, says that by seeming to use the pardon as "a political perk of office," Clinton has crossed an ethical divide that he previously only skirted.
"Unlike past Clinton scandals, which were unrelated to the policies of the government, this appears to be an abuse of his powers as president," Hess observed. "It's the type of impropriety that even Clinton haters could never have pinned on him before."
Like many historians and political scientists, Hess believes that the pardons will detract from Clinton's legacy -- perhaps as much, if not more, than his impeachment. The irony is that Clinton decided to grant these pardons at the same time he was working around-the-clock in his final hours as president to put an extra gloss on his achievements.
A new Gallup poll shows Clinton's favorable rating has fallen to 42 percent -- the lowest it has been.
Of the 176 pardons or commutations granted by Clinton, the most controversial went to fugitive financier Marc Rich, who fled the country in the early 1980s to escape a criminal indictment.
Also under scrutiny are pardons granted to herbal remedy magnate Almon Glenn Braswell, who had been convicted of mail fraud and perjury; Carlos Vignali, a convicted cocaine trafficker; Robert Clinton Fain and James Lowell Manning, Arkansas Republicans who were convicted in the 1980s of tax-related charges; and four members of a New York Hasidic community who stole money from the government.
What upsets many is not that Clinton's pardon decisions were arbitrary -- all presidential pardons are, to some extent -- but that many did not go through normal channels and appeared to be granted because of the intervention of people with money or political influence.
Rich was represented by the president's former counsel, Jack Quinn, and also had the support of two major Democratic contributors with close ties to Clinton, Rich's ex-wife, Denise, and her friend, Beth Dozoretz. Mrs. Rich has contributed more than $1-million to Democrats in recent years, including $450,000 to the Clinton library project in Little Rock, Ark.
Hugh Rodham, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's brother, has admitted accepting nearly $400,000 to contact the White House on behalf of Braswell. William Cunningham, treasurer of Mrs. Clinton's campaign, was hired to help the Arkansas men, who also had the support of Harry Thomason, the Clintons' longtime Hollywood friend.
As Carter sees it, Rich got a pardon in exchange for his ex-wife's generosity toward the Clintons. "I don't think there is any doubt that some of the factors in this pardon were attributable to his large gifts," Carter said. "In my opinion that is disgraceful."
Former Carter chief of staff Hamilton Jordon was more blunt. "I attribute it to the fact that the Clintons are terribly self-absorbed," Jordon wrote in an article, "The First Grifters," in the Wall Street Journal.
These and other critics say the president's power to pardon law violators is a extraordinary right that all previous occupants of the White House have used carefully, following a prescribed procedure that is designed to give proper weight to the views of the men and women who prosecuted the pardon-seekers.
To be sure, other presidents have issued controversial pardons. President Ford's pardon of President Nixon, President Bush's pardon of his defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, were widely criticized. But neither was seen as being motivated by money or political influence.
Some Clinton insiders have been quick to lay some of the blame for Clinton's unpopular pardons at the feet of Bruce Lindsey, former White House assistant counsel and Clinton's political fixer throughout his years as president. It is believed that Lindsey played a central role in all the most controversial pardons, acting as an under-the-table alternative to the Justice Department review process.
Although the Clintons say they did not know that Rodham was getting paid to represent two pardon-seekers, it it highly unlikely that Lindsey was unaware of it.
"Hugh Rodham is a guy who works for money," notes former Clinton political consultant Dick Morris. "If Bruce Lindsey knew that Rodham was involved, there is no way on earth that Bill Clinton didn't know."
Unlike Rodham, however, Clinton's brother, Roger, who got a pardon, was unable to persuade the White House to look as favorably on six friends. Roger, who claims to have received nothing for trying to help his friends, was angry at the outcome.
"My feelings were hurt," he told the Los Angeles Times.
When Clinton sought to defend his pardons in a New York Times op-ed piece last weekend, his explanations were not enough to satisfy his former friends. When Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., was asked if he understood Clinton's reasoning, he replied simply: "No."
"I have said there is no excuse to pardon a fugitive from justice," added Schumer, who -- like Rangel -- defended Clinton during impeachment. "Nothing that the president wrote in his op-ed piece has changed my view . . . None of the right reasons he gave answers that."
Not all Democrats have abandoned Clinton. A few of them have established what they are calling a "virtual war room" to help the ex-president defend himself. They are linked by telephones and e-mail.
"There is no war room, but there is an informal network of advisers," explained Julia Payne, Clinton's chief spokeswoman. "We all talk daily about different things."
The network apparently was the brainchild of Joe Lockhart, a former Clinton press secretary. Payne refused to identify others involved.
The "virtual war room" apparently does not include Carville, a consultant who has always been out front in defense of Clinton. Carville surprised everyone when he declined to defend his former boss in an interview with the New York Times last week.
Former Vice President Al Gore also has been silent. It was reported recently that Gore and Clinton had a nasty conversation filled with recriminations after Gore lost his bid for president. Clinton was angry that Gore had distanced himself from him during his campaign.
Chances are the Clinton-bashing among Democrats could get worse -- or the silence more deafening -- when members of Congress return to Washington later this week. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., another longtime Clinton loyalist, told the Boston Globe that Democrats no longer want to be "defined" by Clinton.
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