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Jewish World Review Feb. 27, 2001 / 4 Adar, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Behind the scenes (It's crowded back there) -- IN politics things are seldom what they seem -- as any reporter or just journalism student soon discovers. A simple resignation, appointment, pardon, contribution, explanation ... has a way of turning out to be not so simple at all.

The first story in the papers may have layers of intrigue and friction behind it that unfold only day by day. Maybe that's because politics is about power, and power is slippery. And devious.

Years ago, when a veteran reporter was showing a rookie like me around the state Capitol, I noted he had a standard greeting for the pols: "What's goin' on behind the scenes?'' It could get pretty crowded back there. The scene on stage is just part of the show, and when folks get a peek backstage, they may discover a lot of dubious goings-on.

Consider the latest Clinton Scandals, a show that refuses to stop. Every time you think Bill Clinton has finally gone too far, he goes further. Even now one suspects he has only begun to scandalize.

This time many of the usual Clinton apologists seem to have been outraged by the Unpardonable Pardons. The Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt opened his eyes, at least momentarily. James Carville -- yes, James Carville! -- balked at defending his idol. And The New York Times saw right through the ex-president's windy defense of his pardons on its own op-ed page.

The midnight pardons have accomplished something strange and wonderful. Suddenly all these ever-vigilant guardians of the public interest have noticed the kind of thing they swallowed year after year -- eight years in all.

Not that it'll last. Bill Clinton's wilder critics, like Dan Burton with his congressional committee, will inevitably go too far and play into his hands. And the usual Clinton apologists will come to his aid again.

What mystifies is why these people who have swallowed so much from the Clintons over the years should be aghast now. What the heck did they expect -- that these Snopeses would leave the White House quietly, instead of looting the premises? That the ever-impeachable William J. Clinton, Esq., having admitted to giving false testimony under oath, would scruple at handing out pardons to rich and well-connected campaign contributors? That he would settle for a cheap suite of offices in some cut-rate suburban shopping mall instead of Manhattan?

Yet they seem genuinely shocked -- shocked! -- that Bill Clinton has left office the same squalid way he occupied it.

The Great Pardoner's explanation in the Times wasn't even completely off the press before its editors had to start fiddling with the text in an inadequate attempt to cover up his deceptions. It seems Slick William's explanations are no longer as slick now that he's no longer in the White House. Maybe because he doesn't have the same extensive, publicly paid staff to help him do damage control.

His staff reduced, Bill Clinton may find it harder and harder to sell his line. Writing is hard work. At least good writing is. Clearly he needs a bigger crew behind the scenes.

Then there's Hugh Rodham. Every president seems to have a Hugh Rodham. The names change, but they're either a brother or brother-in-law. Jimmy Carter had his Billy, and Bill Clinton, who always does things bigger and worse, has both a brother and brother-in-law to get him in hotter water. He's already pardoned brother Roger, who now has been arrested again, this time on a drunk-driving charge. And his brother-in-law Hugh, it turns out, accepted a cool $400,000 for his help in obtaining pardons for a couple of rich felons.

The Clintons were shocked, at least publicly. The former president said he was "deeply disturbed,'' and the junior senator from New York said she was "very disturbed'' by these reports. (''I was just heartbroken and shocked by it.'')

Can you believe that Hugh Rodham's taking advantage of his presidential connections would shock a seasoned commodities trader like his big sister? Come on. Her brother has a history of playing these high-stakes games. Or did she mean she was heartbroken that the news got out?

The Clintons insisted that brother Hugh give the money back, which he did, just as the Clintons themselves gave the White House furnishings back. That is part of the Clintons' code of honor: Give it back. Just as soon as you're found out.

"Let there be no mistake,'' said Hugh Rodham's lawyer. (Everybody associated with the Clintons seems to have a lawyer, and may need one.) Her client, she assures us, "did not speak to either Clinton at any time about either (pardon).'' Of course not. He didn't have to. All he had to do was speak to the right people at the White House. They know who Hugh Rodham is. One can rest assured that First Brother-in-law didn't mention his $400,000 fee to the Clintons, either.

Of course these weren't the only dubious pardons Bill Clinton distributed in the waning hours of his presidency. All told, William Jefferson Clinton issued 140 pardons and 36 commutations his last day in office. He must have been signing like mad that last 24 hours.

How many of these people were campaign contributors? Or gave large sums to the Clinton Library? We may be about to find out if a congressional committee has its way. If others were as generous as Marc Rich's divorced wife, could we call this presidential library The House That Pardons Built?

Paul Greenberg Archives


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