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Jewish World Review Jan. 17, 2001 / 22 Teves, 5761

Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly
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Consumer Reports

Master money-grubber -- FOUR EVENTS in recent weeks put the Clinton presidency in perspective. They are: (1) Clinton's back-room move, as his vice president was fighting for his political life, to knock Al Gore's candidate for chairman of the Democratic National Committee out of the job and replace him with Clinton's own loyal liegeman, Terry McAuliffe; (2) Clinton's December Surprise revocation of the executive order he signed back when he was promising "the most ethical administration in history" barring senior White House and administration officials from lobbying their former places of employment for five years after leaving their jobs; (3) the Clintons' decision to buy a $2.85 million house in Washington and accept an $8 million book advance for Sen. Rodham Clinton -- while still begging friends and favor-seekers for contributions to their legal defense fund; and, (4) above all, the guilty plea entered by the Clinton illegal fundraiser James Riady.

These events speak to the greatest -- in the sense of largest -- legacy of the Clinton years; and that is one of a bottomless and endless selfishness that corrupted whatever it touched: the practice of politics, the conduct of policy, the institution of the presidency, finally the public ethos itself.

Certainly, Clinton did some real good. Turning the budget deficit into a surplus was vitally important in maintaining an extraordinary economic boom. As the columnist and author Robert Wright has argued in the New York Times, Clinton's successful effort to free his party from a union-enforced philosophy of economic isolationism was an epochal event and a great boon to the creation of wealth worldwide. A related third accomplishment: Clinton rescued, at least for a while, the Democratic Party from the leftist mess it made of itself in the post-1968 era and reshaped liberalism into something that once again can plausibly aspire to majority status.

But do these accomplishments match in size the immense negative accomplishment of Clinton and his years, the destruction wrought by his terrible greed? In Clinton's nearly pathologically self-adoring view, the only stain on his record was that occasioned by the Lewinsky scandal, and that was really the fault of his enemies: He was a great president who made one little private mistake, was wrongly persecuted and impeached, but persevered -- making him not a disgrace but a hero, a savior of the Constitution.

But first, this is not what happened. What happened is that the president of the United States abused his office, abused the trust of the people, abused a young and vulnerable female employee, was threatened with exposure of this through the court-ordered questions routine in any sexual harassment case -- questions allowable under a law that the president himself had supported and that was enforced by his government. He then used his powers to orchestrate a campaign of perjury and obstruction of justice to hide his guilt. In other words, the president purposely subverted the law he was sworn to uphold and the law that, under his rule, governs the rest of us. To get away with this, he and his minions waged a war that damaged many lives and that profoundly corrupted the Democratic Party and liberalism in general. To preserve in power a man obviously guilty of illegal acts, Democrats and liberals supported the abuse of power, the abuse of women, the abuse of the law, the abuse of the truth, the abuse of the public trust.

And second, impeachment was not, to put it mildly, the only stain. A far greater and more consequential corruption was occasioned by the remarkable depths to which Clinton sank in his money-grubbing. Clinton was our first really openly rentable president, heading what the former Justice Department chief investigator Charles La Bella termed a "loose enterprise" conspiracy that blatantly sold access to the president and to high policy-making officials, with the clear chance to influence U.S. policy.

Consider the case of Mr. Riady, the Indonesian billionaire who pleaded guilty last week to defrauding the United States in connection with an illegal fundraising scheme for his old crony, Clinton. Riady, whom Clinton knew to be a foreign national, first offered to raise money -- $1 million -- in a 1992 limousine ride with Clinton. ("No specific recollection," says Clinton.) Riady's agent John Huang, placed in the Clinton Commerce Department, eventually raised $3.4 million in mostly illegal contributions. In the criminal information Riady signed to seal his deal with Justice, the billionaire businessman's motive is stated: "To obtain various benefits," including "Most Favored Nation status for China, open trade policies with Indonesia, normalization of relations with Vietnam." The good fairy Bill sprinkled magic dust and little Jimmy was granted all three of his wishes.

In 1997, defending himself, Clinton said: "I don't believe you can find any evidence of the fact that I have changed government policy solely because of a contribution." That is the epitaph of his tenure; and this, in the end, is his legacy: He was absolutely corrupt and he corrupted, absolutely.

Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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