The First Grifters

Clinton saw the pardon power as just another perk of the office.

Hamilton Jordan - Wall Street Journal - February 20, 2001

It is difficult for the average citizen to comprehend how outrageous Bill Clinton's pardons are to those of us who have worked in the White House.

Let me describe the attitude and processes that were in place for pardons in the Carter administration and for all recent presidents up until Mr. Clinton. The constitutional power of a president to pardon is unique and sacred, meant to give the chief executive the ability to correct injustices. But while the president's right to grant a pardon is unequivocal, certain procedures have evolved over time that are honored and passed along from president to president.


In the Carter administration, a request for presidential pardon would have required the following:

  • A formal, written analysis of the case by the Justice Department.

  • A description of the crime and a history of the trial.

  • The written statements and recommendations of the prosecuting team that won the conviction.

  • A listing of the substantive argument for and against the pardon and a statement of any extenuating circumstances that justify the review of the case.

  • The formal and written recommendations of the Justice Department (usually the attorney general in high-profile cases like Patricia Hearst or Marc Rich) and of the White House counsel.
This package of written information would be presented to the president for his study and review, and it would be normal for the White House counsel or the attorney general to be directly involved in the case.

Yet it appears there was no effort to formally collect opinions from the key parties in the Marc Rich case. Indeed, the 11th-hour presentation of the request to Mr. Clinton was made by Mr. Rich's attorney, Jack Quinn, who happens to be a former Clinton White House counsel. We do not know how, when or even if the Justice Department and then-White House counsel Beth Nolan formally weighed in with written information.

Mr. Quinn and Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder testified before a congressional committee that they had "conversations" on the Marc Rich pardon application. But these discussions were no substitute for the time-honored tradition of a formal evaluation. These conversations also did not satisfy the president's need to receive recommendations from independent, knowledgeable authorities in the Justice Department. Indeed, Mr. Holder acknowledged that based on what he has recently learned about the Rich case, he would today recommend against the pardon.

We do know that Mr. Clinton found time to confer with his political advisers, party fund-raisers, Denise Rich, her friends, and even foreign leaders about the pardon. In fact, in an op-ed piece published Sunday in the New York Times, the former president points to a combination of legal and foreign policy considerations--particularly pressure from Israel--as the main reasons for the Rich pardon. It's therefore extremely curious that he never bothered to pick up the phone and call Attorney General Janet Reno or Mr. Holder or the prosecuting attorney to get their advice and perspective. Nor did he seek input from his foreign policy advisers. He was either uninterested in their opinion or not interested in hearing what they surely would have told him.

I could not imagine walking into the Oval Office and raising the subject of a pardon with President Carter. Nor could I imagine other chiefs of staff in this modern era--e.g., Dick Cheney, Howard Baker, Jim Baker or Leon Panetta--discussing with their president the political pros and cons of a pardon for a fugitive who had renounced his citizenship and fled the country to escape prosecution on tax fraud and racketeering charges.

If I'd have had the nerve to walk into the Oval Office to discuss a pardon with Mr. Carter, I would have been peppered with questions:

"Hamilton, why on earth are you bringing this to me?"

"What does (Attorney General) Griffin Bell think?"

"Why isn't Lloyd Cutler (the White House counsel) here?"

"What is the case history and rationale for this pardon?"

"What are the extenuating circumstances that merit my overturning the judgment of a jury and our court system?"

"Do the former prosecutors favor a pardon, and if so, why?"

After a series of my answering "I don't know," President Carter would have surely given me one of his famous icy stares and admonished me, "Pardons are serious legal business and not your business, Hamilton. Don't ever come in here again to talk to me about a pardon."

If I had summoned the courage to say, "But Mr. President, this pardon is for someone who contributed generously to our campaign and has even promised to contribute to the Carter Presidential Library," he would have thrown me out of the Oval Office and probably fired me on the spot.

It is incredible that the ethical atmosphere of the Clinton White House had sunk to a level whereby the constitutional power of a president to issue a pardon was discussed among Mr. Clinton and his White House staff as just one more perk of office. It was treated in the same vein as: "Who is going to be regional HUD director?" or "Which campaign contributors are staying in the Lincoln Bedroom tonight or flying on Air Force One?"

It is a great mystery how this gifted politician could have had such an enormous lapse of judgment. I attribute it to the fact that the Clintons are terribly self-absorbed. As well, I believe they developed a feeling of invincibility and even arrogance after his impeachment trial, when the Clintons confused their short-term victory with the sense of national exhaustion and disgust that followed the scandal.

If a president can get caught having sex in the Oval Office with an intern and committing perjury about it to a federal grand jury, and still get away with it, what could possibly stop him? Bill Clinton--whose every decision was guided by public opinion polls--interpreted his high job-approval ratings following his impeachment at least as a vote of confidence and more likely as some form of national forgiveness.

Instead of leaving him for his public betrayal, Hillary Clinton exploited her public image of a wronged but loyal spouse to create a new persona for herself and win election to the Senate.

The Clintons are not a couple but a business partnership, not based on love or even greed but on shared ambitions. Everywhere they go, they leave a trail of disappointed, disillusioned friends and staff members to clean up after them. The Clintons' only loyalty is to their own ambitions.

They belong to no place. Arkansas was just a starting point for Bill Clinton and a place Hillary had to tolerate while nurturing national ambitions. It was their home for a quarter-century, the birthplace of their only child and their political base, but they left the state behind in favor of New York City, a place that can match the scale of their own egos, appetites and ambitions.

They have never looked back. One talking head recently called the Clintons "political drifters," but Webster's defines drifters as people who move around "aimlessly." There was never anything aimless about the Clintons' wanderings: Little Rock, Yale, Oxford, Little Rock, Washington, Chappaqua and now New York City. Every move was calculated, part of their grand scheme to claw their way to the very top.

When one considers pardons for political friends and donors, gifts to the White House taken by the Clintons for their personal use, and the attempt to lease extravagant penthouse offices for the former president with taxpayer money, a better word comes to mind: grifters.

Grifters was a term used in the Great Depression to describe fast-talking con artists who roamed the countryside, profiting at the expense of the poor and the uneducated, always one step ahead of the law, moving on before they were held accountable for their schemes and half-truths.

No longer able to dominate the national news with moving speeches or policy initiatives, the First Grifters have been unable to move beyond the Marc Rich pardon, White House gifts and other events related to their noisy and ungraceful departure from office. Robbed of the frills of high office, we can now examine these last-minute pardons--and the Clintons--for what they are.

Mr. Jordan was White House chief of staff in the Carter administration. He is author of a memoir, "No Such Thing as a Bad Day" (Longstreet Press, 2000).