Clinton: out of office, but not out of the spotlight
Ongoing furor over last-minute pardons may damage his legacy and his standing in the Democratic Party.
WASHINGTON — If Bill Clinton thought his pardon gaffe might have died down by now, his hopes have surely been dashed.
An investigation is under way in the House. This week, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton couldn't hold a simple press conference about her views on the Ashcroft nomination without fielding questions on the pardon subject. And high-profile Democrats keep weighing in with frankly critical remarks.
"I'm sickened by it," says Robert Strauss, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, referring to Mr. Clinton's last-minute decision to pardon financial fugitive Marc Rich. "The president used poor judgment, and the people around him served him poorly. It's hurt him terribly," Mr. Strauss said at a Monitor breakfast with reporters this week.
Indeed, the political fallout from Clinton's pardon of Mr. Rich - charged with tax evasion and racketeering, among other things - has been so heated that many believe it will leave a lasting taint on the former president's legacy. It may even impact Clinton's future leadership role in the Democratic Party - a role that, a little over a week ago, seemed assured.
Strauss, a highly respected senior political figure in Washington, says that Clinton's political influence may be damaged. He has received numerous phone calls from concerned Democrats around the country, he says. "I've never seen anything quite like this."
A close friend of the Clintons says the damage is severe enough to have a significant impact on the former president's legacy. He urges that Mrs. Clinton say: "I wish the president hadn't made the decision, and I disagree with it." As for her husband, "He has got to be much more forthcoming and try to invite people in to ask him further questions." He can't, the friend says, just continue to fob reporters off on Jack Quinn - the attorney who represented Rich and pushed for the pardon.
While Mr. Quinn says he is fully convinced that Rich deserves pardon based on the merits of the legal case itself, a host of other considerations have just about everyone else - including the Democratic leadership on the Hill - angry, embarrassed, and disappointed.
Most disturbing is the appearance that the president was bought. Rich's ex-wife donated more than $1 million to the Democrats, including to Mrs. Clinton's Senate campaign. She gave them furniture for their new house in Chappaqua, N.Y., and petitioned the president three times on her former husband's behalf.
Democrats are also upset at the lack of transparency in the decision, and the rushed way it was handled. Clinton reportedly discussed the pardon with Quinn in a phone call on the eve of the Inauguration, instead of going through the Department of Justice, the usual channel for such pardons.
What particularly galls Strauss is that Rich, who has been living in exile for 17 years and even attempted to renounce his American citizenship, then turned around and "used" US institutions to gain a pardon.
These details seemed sufficiently fishy to congressional Republicans to warrant launching an investigation, led by Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana - an old Clinton nemesis. And Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi this week said he supported the idea.
Of course, a lengthy investigation could prove to be dangerous territory for the GOP, since previous investigations of Clinton scandals have backfired. "If you're going to be investigated, the best thing that could happen would be to be investigated by Dan Burton," says Bob Shrum, a former adviser to the Gore campaign. "Writing Bill Clinton off is always a mistake."
Perhaps with that in mind, the White House this week announced it would not seek to block the Rich pardon. President Bush said that while he would not have granted such a pardon, Clinton acted within his rights.
Indeed, so far, the one who comes out looking good in all of this is Mr. Bush. Thomas Mann, a longtime observer of Washington politics at the Brookings Institution, says that Bush has responded "intelligently" to the Clinton pardon issue.
"Investigating other pardons - none of that is going to do Bush any good. He looks better by being magnanimous, sweeping it away, and moving on."
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