For an overheated minority of Americans, contempt for Bill and Hillary
Clinton borders upon the pathological.
It's our equivalent of the hatred that keeps ethnic chauvinists at each others' throats in the Balkans.
The nation's No. 1 celebrity couple is the far right's primary
target in the "culture war" endorsed
by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Check out Mike Huckabee's favorite Web site, FreeRepublic.com, if you doubt it.
Just about everybody else, however, tacitly understands that when what
former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo
aptly described as "the tsunami [tidal wave] of media coverage unleashed by the Clinton pardons" eventually
dies down, none of the most lurid accusations will be proved and no criminal charges will be filed.
Ironically, the most tangible result of Bill Clinton's last-minute lapse
of judgment is apt to be something
he favors and most Republicans don't:
Passage of campaign finance reform that would prevent a wealthy patron
like Denise Rich from winning
her way into the president's heart with huge "soft money" donations to his political party (although
McCain-Feingold wouldn't have prevented her from lavishing money on Clinton's presidential library).
Absent reform, connoisseurs may have to settle for the most astonishing
Democrat-Gazette headline in years:
"Commutations for 4 Jews targeted."
This time, even Clinton's warmest defenders, your humble, obedient servant
among them, can't find words to
defend the dreadful appearances of the Rich pardon. And in politics, appearance and reality are often the same.
Furthermore, this is one "scandal" everybody gets: Billionaire fugitive
wins "Get Out of Jail Free" card while
peasants rot in prison. Which leads to the most puzzling question of all: Justice and propriety aside, why didn't
Clinton, normally the most astute political tactician of his generation, see trouble coming?
After all, even in those frantic, apparently sleepless last days in
the White House, the president turned down
far more pardon seekers than he accommodated. Supporters of convicted "junk bond" financier Michael Milken,
including a wealthy Californian named Ron Burkle, who'd given load more cash to the Democrats than
Denise Rich, lobbied Clinton in vain. Also, Milken had served his time, and arguably had been rehabilitated.
So it wasn't just the money. Clinton also turned down advocates for spy Jonathan Pollard, including the same
Israeli leaders who lobbied successfully for Marc Rich. Pollard's done 16 years.
So it wasn't just Ehud Barak, either.
Clinton also denied former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, targeted by the
same ruthless bloodhounds who chased him
and Hillary for six years: prosecutors who concocted imaginary conspiracies, pressured witnesses to confirm
accusations somewhere between dubious and delusional, and still lost four out of five jury trials. Apart from
Kenneth Starr's shameful prosecution of Julie Hiatt Steele, all these abuses took place outside the Monica
Lewinsky affair. If Clinton was, indeed, "radicalized" by his experience with Starr, as aides have said,
why not pardon Tucker?
The answer seems to be what it should have been with regard to Rich
and the aforementioned "4 Jews":
He feared a political backlash.
How did he miscalculate so badly? Maybe in wishing to look magnanimous,
Clinton expected forbearance
from the GOP like he gave George Bush the elder. As the Washington Post's Michael Powell noted, Bush's
Christmas Eve 1992 pardon list included "[a] former Cabinet official who could have been in a position to
implicate the president himself in federal crimes. An assistant secretary of state who withheld information
from Congress and a CIA official who lied to it. And a Pakistani who was caught smuggling $1.5 million
worth of heroin into the United States and had 47 years left on his sentence."
Bush never consulted the Justice Department, either. Pardoning
Caspar Weinberger "went way beyond what
is alleged in the Marc Rich case," Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archives at George Washington
University, told Powell. "Both presidents made the highly unusual move of pardoning someone before trial.
The difference is that George Bush was in line to be called as a witness at Weinberger's trial."
Then there's Bush's 1989 pardon of Armand Hammer, the convicted Nixon
"slush fund" contributor.
Hammer gave millions to GOP causes and contributed heavily to Bush's 1988 campaign.
The Rich pardon is trifling in comparison. The fugitive financier wasn't going to prison whether he got it or not.
The Weinberger pardon did stir up a small stink in the press.
But when Clinton took office in 1993, he pointedly
declined to pursue his predecessor, and the Democratic House went along. Not so Bush the younger, who's
been playing bad cop-good cop with the hated (and still feared) Clinton since making off with the election.
As the Post had earlier reported, both the make-believe vandalizing of the White House and the imaginary
looting of Air Force One, two stories that preceded the Rich pardon blowup, were initially leaked by Bush aides,
only to be subsequently downplayed by the new president himself. Cute, huh?
Even so, fishy pardons aren't the kind of GOP stunts Democrats should
imitate. Can it be that Clinton doesn't yet
grasp how the right dominates the political press? Caught between The Washington Times, The Wall Street Journal,
Fox News, MSNBC News and a noisy claque of well-financed, right-wing Washington magazines, the "liberal,
establishment" media turn back flips trying to prove they are neither.
The New York Times has run two extended mea culpas for the Wen Ho Lee
mess; it'll never apologize for
Whitewater. A number of big GOP donors were onboard an American nuclear submarine when it accidentally
sank a Japanese fishing trawler. Nobody said boo. Imagine the hysteria if Harry Thomason or Barbra Streisand
had been at the controls.
Except this time, Bill Clinton can't say he didn't ask for it.