Bill Clinton’s Last Outrage; The President’s Defenders Feel Betrayed by His Pardon of Marc Rich

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

February 6, 2001

You knew there were scores of commentators, talk show hosts, cable news anchors and politicians whose lives would be made miserable by the absence of a Clinton presidency to talk about, and talk about, and talk about.

What you did not know was the depth of Clinton’s compassion. Clearly feeling the pain of this constituency, the former president created enough controversy around pardons, gifts and office space to keep the anti-Clinton business in business.

Clinton’s generosity kept the story alive over the weekend. He went public on Friday to announce he was paying for some of those gifts he and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had received, and would also have his foundation cover part of the rent on his new Manhattan digs.

But Clinton’s truly remarkable achievement was in creating a consensus against himself with his pardon of Marc Rich, popularly known as the “fugitive financier,” and otherwise known as large-scale tax cheat and buster of sanctions. On this one, I’d wager all the money Rich owes the government that Clinton’s friends are even more outraged than his enemies.

Take Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat and House Judiciary Committee member who was one of Clinton’s most forceful and articulate defenders during the impeachment mess. “I was very angry about it,” Frank says of the Rich pardon. “It was a real betrayal by Bill Clinton of all who had been strongly supportive of him to do something this unjustified. It was contemptuous.”

Then there’s Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat who is one of the most liberal members of Congress. “It puts back into sharp focus all the questions about values and ethics in relation to the Clinton administration,” he said. “I think it was a mistake. I don’t know why he did this. People in the country need to be given more encouragement about public affairs, not more reasons to be cynical.”

Fresh off his battle against John Ashcroft’s nomination for attorney general, Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democratic member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, was no less angry. “It was a terrible pardon,” he said. “It was inexcusable. It was outrageous…Here was a man who was involved in a huge swindle and has shown absolutely no remorse.” Usually, Leahy added, pardons go to those who have paid at least some penalty for their crime. Rich’s penalty? He’s been living “a life of luxury” in exile in Switzerland and Spain.

I noticed on The Washington Post’s op-ed page that one of the original prosecutors in the Rich case was Martin Auerbach, now a lawyer in private practice. Having met Auerbach in college more than three decades ago, I rather doubted he had become a right-wing conspiracist. So I called him, too.

“I voted for Clinton three times,” said Auerbach, who lives in Brooklyn and was referring to his presidential votes in 1992 and 1996, and his ballot for Hillary Clinton in last year’s Senate contest. “I’ve defended Clinton for years. I always felt that the rules had changed around him. But this creates a whole different question in my mind.”

The problem with Rich is that “he thumbed his nose at the law every single time the country responded to a crisis,” whether the matter was the energy crisis or the hostage crisis in Iran. “You may think tax rates are too high,” Auerbach said. “But to unilaterally evade taxes on $ 100 million is not the way to go.”

Auerbach, still a political progressive, offers what should be a very troubling observation for liberals. “Think of all the kids who hot-wire cars and go to jail. They don’t get to choose between going behind bars or spending a rather comfortable exile.” And he adds: “I sure would like an explanation from the former president: What was he thinking?”

It’s possible for Clinton’s defenders to argue that the president’s enemies made a bigger deal out of some of the post-presidential controversies than they would have for any other former president. The gifts were excessive, so unnecessary and, well, so uncool, not to mention a way around the gift rules that now cover the junior senator from New York. But other presidents have taken gifts too. And office space in Manhattan is, by definition, expensive. These mistakes were easily undone.

But the Rich pardon cannot be undone. In defending himself last Friday, the former president offered these wise words. “You never get in trouble for saying no,” he said. Yes, and sometimes “no” is exactly the right thing to say.

E.J. Dionne is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.