Bill's Very Bumpy Road From White House

Pardons, sofagate have pals muttering 'tacky,' 'sordid'

Dave Saltonstall - NY Daily News - February 11, 2001

It would be hard to imagine a more thrilling welcome to New York than the one Bill Clinton enjoyed on the night of Jan. 23, just 19 days ago.

At a sold-out performance of "Aida" at the grand Metropolitan Opera, after Luciano Pavarotti had taken his bows, Clinton was greeted with a roaring ovation from a crowd that engulfed him with shouts of "Bravo, bravo."

By now, it's questionable whether anyone would stand and cheer for Bill.

After three weeks of the most tumultuous, scandal-plagued transition to private life ever experienced by a former President, Clinton is the toast of no one's town, as words like "tacky," "sordid" and "greedy" are now the norm — even among his closest confidants.

"These are self-inflicted wounds that cut very deep," said one formerly high-ranking Democrat and Friend of Bill. "How it happened, why it happened — a lot of us just don't know. It's inexplicable."

Even Hillary Clinton, who has only seen her husband three or four days out of the past two weeks, is said by friends to be "mortified" by some of her husband's last-minute decisions as President.

What's clear, however, is that Clinton's postpresidential meltdown isn't likely to stop anytime soon.

Congressional inquiries into Clinton's decision to pardon fugitive financier Marc Rich — after accepting millions in gifts and donations from Rich's ex-wife, Denise — are due to continue next week.

Battle lines are still being drawn around Clinton's desire to lease prime midtown Manhattan office — at 8,300 square feet, about the size of Yankee Stadium's infield — at a cost of $450,000 a year to taxpayers.

And after firestorms over the $190,000 in silverware, sofas and other gifts the Clintons carted away from the White House — more than half of which they have since chosen to pay for or return — questions are now focusing on donations made to Clinton's planned library in Little Rock, Ark.

Among the big-time givers to the library: Denise Rich, who donated $450,000 to the complex but is now invoking her Fifth Amendment right not to testify on her husband's pardon or anything else, saying she doesn't want to incriminate herself.

Historians seem at a loss to find another former President who has inflicted so much public relations damage, in so little time, to his own reputation. Even Richard Nixon, they add, who resigned in shame after being threatened with impeachment, managed not to start any new fires once he left office.

"For all his enormous talents, I think there is a kind of habitual arrogance and carelessness about him," said historian David Halberstam, author of the the Kennedy-era classic, "The Best and the Brightest," of Clinton. "This is all part of a continuum."

"It was just crude on their part," added Boston University historian and Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Dallek. "All a President has once he leaves office is his reputation, and all Clinton did by accepting all those gifts is sully that reputation."

Not that Presidents haven't accepted gifts before — in quantities as great or even greater than Clinton.

Dwight Eisenhower's millionaire friends built him a cottage on Augusta National Golf Course and outfitted his Gettysburg farm with champion livestock. Ronald Reagan retired to a three-bedroom, five-bath home in swank Bel Air, Calif., that his pals shelled out $2.5 million to build — while Reagan was still in office. Nancy Reagan said they later paid the money back with interest.

George Bush also managed to find a home for about $30,000 a year in fishing rods, golf clubs and briefcases — a haul in line with the Clintons' $37,000 annual take.

That these former Presidents were able to accept such gifts — without barely a mention in the press, much less the halls of Congress — strikes many Clinton defenders as solid proof that a new, unfair standard is being applied.

"Nobody attacked Reagan when his friends gave him a $2.5 million ranch house because that was dirty pool, you just didn't do that," complained one Clinton friend. "Now, there are no parameters."

Looking at just the numbers, Clinton is also not alone — or even ahead of the pack — in granting pardons.

Harry Truman dished out 1,913 pardons, or nearly five times as many as Clinton's 395. Eisenhower's tally came in at 1,110, Johnson's at 960 and Reagan's at 393.

History is also full of Presidents who have bypassed traditional channels — as Clinton clearly did in the Rich case — to bestow pardons with little or no input from others.

"They say Abraham Lincoln used to pardon the sons of mothers who just happened to run into the Capitol," said P.S. Ruckman, a professor at Rock Valley College in Illinois and an expert on executive clemency. "If they cried on his shoulder, he pardoned them. Talk about no process!"

Like Clinton, George Washington also pardoned more people on his last day in office than in his previous eight years as President, Ruckman added.

What history seemed to lack, at least until now, is any instance when the President pardoned a fugitive from justice whose case had never even been to trial. Rich fled to Switzerland and beyond after investigators charged him with failing to pay $48 million in taxes he owed on oil deals with rogue nations like Iran.

That the pardon came after Denise Rich had raised millions for the Clintons — creating at least the appearance of a quid pro quo — only serves to set the case apart further, experts say.

"In the annals of presidential pardons, I don't know of any other fugitive billionaires," said Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley. "It does strike me as extraordinary, and I don't pretend to know why he did it."

The combined furor now seems to have transformed Clinton — once a Teflon President, able to withstand any amount of heat — into a magnet for bad press and trouble.

When he went down to Florida last week to give his first speech as a private citizen — a gig that brought him $100,000 — he was greeted not by cheering supporters but by protesters.

"Hide the women and silverware," shouted one. "Bill Clinton is in town."

"It's good to be here," Clinton told his corporate hosts, sounding a bit too glad to be out of his new home state. "I've been freezing to death."

At this point, the man can't even seem to find a full-time press secretary. Julia Payne, a one-time Clinton-Gore press aide, has been asked to take over as Clinton's temporary spokeswoman so Jake Siewert, his last spokesman in the White House, can have a break. Both are working for free.But neither could make the trip to Florida, requiring Clinton to draft former press secretary Joe Lockhart, who just happened to be in Florida.

Whoever gets the job may feel as if he or she is working more for bad-boy rock star than a former President of the United States.

As GOP consultant Jay Severin joked, "Bill Clinton is much closer to being Puff Daddy right now than Gerald Ford. He's in Madonna's class now."

  • See Also: The Clemency Page