Clinton's suspect pardons

'Pardongate' sours ex-president's legacy, his wife's image, and public view of politics.

Bill Clinton's friends have often described him as a tornado who roars through people's lives. Today, for possibly the first time in his career, it is he who seems helpless and trapped in a whirling funnel cloud of political controversy.

Shorn of the power and pulpit of the presidency, Mr. Clinton has arguably been unable to mount a convincing defense of the pardons he issued in his last few hours in office. A daily stream of revelations - such as his brother-in-law's receipt of hundreds of thousands of dollars for aiding two pardon appeals - has stunned even most old supporters into silence or open criticism and made Clinton the first ex-president to remain more newsworthy than his successor.

Permanent damage to Clinton's legacy and future is possible, but unlikely, say some analysts. Virtually every previous president who left office under some sort of cloud eventually recovered standing with the American people. But for now the ex-president's travails have damaged his ability to provide a countering view to President Bush's initial policy proposals. They have halted talk of a presidential bid for his wife, and probably hurt his short-term speech earnings potential.

And, if nothing else, the apparently formless process whereby Clinton granted clemency may harden public distaste for politics and politicians in general. "Here's a guy who's so intelligent and who understood the presidency so well, but there's one screw loose," says pollster Del Ali.

To this point, Clinton's efforts to defend the most controversial of his pardons - that of fugitive financier Marc Rich - have only made his critics more angry and his friends more silent. In a New York Times opinion article last week, Clinton said, among other things, that Mr. Rich and his partner Pincus Green had been charged with securities fraud and evading taxes under regulations and racketeering laws no longer used in tax cases, and had been unfairly treated by prosecutors.

But he didn't address more inflammatory charges, among them that Rich had traded with Iran while it held US hostages. Nor did he mention that Rich had fled rather than face trial. That makes any pardon of Rich a critique of the US justice system - a statement that he would inevitably not get a fair trial.

Even Democrats who manned the barricades for Clinton during the Lewinsky matter have for the most part declined to defend him now. The best that most can say is that the pardons were so questionable that they must have been an out-and-out mistake. Sen. Joe Biden (D) of Delaware went so far as to call the pardons "brain-dead."

Clinton "pushed the envelope to the point that no one's going to come to his defense," says Michael Birkner, a historian at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.

As an ex-president and a new senator, the Clintons would typically have gotten a fresh start in the public's minds, says Mr. Birkner. But now they're just reminding the public of all the qualities it didn't like about the couple.

"Clinton is going to have to make amends if he's going to have a different image - more pro-bono speaking, education activity, and more," says Birkner. "For Hillary's sake, he should do it."

As a rule, Americans have been quick to forgive lapses in presidents after they leave office. Jimmy Carter was perceived as a failure, and is today one of the most admired men in the nation for his good works over the years. Harry Truman has similarly risen in public esteem. Dwight Eisenhower was seen as an amiable dolt by many when he retired. But today it is clear that he was one of the shrewdest presidents of the modern era.

Pardon controversies have arisen in the recent past. Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon was seen as contributing to Mr. Ford's loss to Mr. Carter. George Bush's pardon of Caspar Weinberger for any actions related to the Iran-contra probe was seen at the time as possibly related to an attempt to cover up Mr Bush's own actions.

But these pardons had a larger point in their defense: They helped the nation get past some sort of roiling controversy. They forestalled any lingering prosecutions that would have done more national damage than personal justice. Against that context, Clinton's pardons seem positively idiosyncratic. Why Rich, but not his fellow financier Michael Milken, who actually stood trial and was convicted?

In fact, there's more usual than unusual in Clinton's pardons, says a historian who has studied presidential clemency. "The personal politics, the political intrigue, this has been going on for 200 years," says P.S. Ruckman, a political scientist at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill. "The history of clemency is a history of abuse."

John Adams, as president, pressed for passage of the sedition laws - then when up for reelection offered pardons to those convicted under those laws to garner votes. Abraham Lincoln was notorious for issuing pardons to friends or officeholders who were able to gain his attention - though in fairness many of his pardons commuted sentences imposed by harsh military discipline for such Civil War offenses as sleeping on duty.

Staff writers Abraham McLaughlin and Dante Chinni contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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