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Jewish World Review March 31, 2002 / 18 Nisan, 5762

Michael Kelly

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Consumer Reports

Clinton's Special Gift for Abusing Power | Four new explorations of aspects of the phenomenon that was President Clinton have been published. They are: "The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton," by Joe Klein, the artist formerly known as Anonymous; "Starr: A Reassessment," by Washington Post editorialist Benjamin Wittes; "Final Report of the Independent Counsel in Re: Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan Association," by Robert W. Ray; and "Justice Undone: Clemency Decisions in the Clinton White House," by the House Committee on Government Reform, chaired by Dan Burton.

These reviews are, as they say, mixed. Klein seeks to offer a limited revisionist defense of Clinton as "the most compelling politician of his generation, although that isn't saying much." Wittes, in an important and even brilliant argument, seeks chiefly to explain the behavior of Clinton's chief prosecutor, Kenneth Starr. Ray seeks to finish Starr's work by concluding whether Clinton broke any federal laws and, if so, whether that merited prosecution. The Burton committee seeks to report on Clinton's extraordinary abuse of presidential clemency in the last hours of his administration.

But there is a common theme, which has to do with the quality that, in the end, made Clinton a most unusual president. It is not, Klein's valiant efforts notwithstanding, a positive quality. What comes across as the most important source of Clinton's uniqueness as president is the nearly unbelievable degree of his essential unfitness to be president -- his profound immaturity, his pathological selfishness, his cynicism, above all his relentless corruption.

In Klein's defense, Clinton emerges almost casually as "the apotheosis of his generation's alleged sins: the moral relativism, the tendency to pay more attention to marketing than to substance, the solipsistic callowness," possessed of an "angry, adolescent side," given to "almost hilarious self-involvement" and "childishness," "a man who would actually poll whether or not he should tell the truth" and who suffered from "moral turpitude," "a compendium of all that his accusers found most embarrassing, troubling and loathsome about themselves." Klein finds it plausible that Clinton ordered up lethal bombings in Sudan and Afghanistan "to turn the nation's attention away from the Lewinsky scandal." This, mind you, in defense.

Wittes, on his way to convincingly criticizing Starr's disastrous confusion between truth and justice, notes that Clinton's conduct in the investigation was "consistently venal," that Clinton "consistently placed his own interests ahead of the public interest," that Clinton "had committed crimes and was determined not to face any accounting for them," and that Clinton had "a pathological aversion to the truth." This, mind you, in passing.

Ray finds the evidence "insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt" that either Clinton or his wife "committed any criminal offense" in the Whitewater affair. In the Lewinsky matter, however, he finds that "sufficient evidence existed to prosecute President Clinton" for perjury, and that there were "substantial" federal interests in prosecution, but that, in essence, Clinton wasn't really worth the trouble. This, mind you, in dismissal.

There remains, after all of it, a sense of the impossible about Clinton and his actions: He did what? This emotion strikes the reader most forcefully in wading through the Burton committee's remarkable report into the pardons and commutations that Clinton issued in his last hours in office.

The pardoning spree perfectly illustrates -- even more than the campaign finance scandals, even more than the Lewinsky scandal -- the exceptional nature and degree of personal corruption that Clinton brought to and spread through the White House.

In his last bit of time in office, Clinton used his last bit of power to issue 140 pardons and 36 commutations to friends, family (his brother Roger) and an array of well-connected, well-heeled special pleaders.

To do this, the report notes, Clinton "deviated from all applicable standards" governing the use of clemency power. He "granted pardons and commutation to individuals who never would have received clemency but for the fact that they hired individuals close to the president to represent them. . . . He granted clemency to 13 individuals convicted in connection with independent counsel investigations of the Clinton administration. . . . He sent the message that he had two standards of justice -- one for the rich, and one for the poor. . . .

"By pardoning fugitives from justice [Marc Rich and Pincus Green], he undermined the efforts of law enforcement officers everywhere. . . . By commuting the sentences of Carlos Vignali and Harvey Weinig, [he] undermined U.S. efforts to fight the flow of illegal drugs into the country."

This was an abuse of power unique in American history, and it was the abuse of a power at the absolute heart of the presidency, a power over life and death, a power over law.

Now that is exceptionalism. This is what Clinton will be, and deserves to be, remembered for above all.

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

© 2002, Washington Post Co.