Scapegoats and Humbugs

Forward - Editorial - March 2, 2001

Bill Clinton's behavior in his final hours in office, doling out hasty clemencies to a rogue's gallery of well-heeled scoundrels, seems to have accomplished what eight years in the White House could not: uniting the nation in a common assessment of the Man from Hope. Americans of every political stripe are feeling violated, it seems, by the appearance of the nation's highest officer debasing his public charge, short-circuiting and cheapening the law he was sworn to uphold.

What's still unknown is what motivated Mr. Clinton in deciding whom to favor. We know that pots of money were flowing in various directions. Multiple investigations are now underway to find a direct link between money paid and clemencies rendered. But the odds of finding such a link are slim. More likely, the money simply accomplished what money always accomplishes in our system: It got the president's ear. That alone didn't bring pardons. There were too many high rollers who sought pardons and failed, for money to have been the sole or even the main determinant.

What drove Mr. Clinton, it's becoming clear, was a more complicated set of factors. One factor may well have been simple cronyism. Another, plainly, was legal arguments. Mr. Clinton may have been swayed, according to those who know him, by the claims of those who say, like Marc Rich and the New Square Four, that they were victimized by overzealous prosecutors. That's an argument Mr. Clinton takes very personally.

Yet another factor was community pressure. Mr. Rich, the accused tax cheat, benefited from a massive letter-writing campaign on his behalf by an astonishing array of Israeli and world Jewish leaders. A similarly impressive roster was mustered on behalf of a convicted cocaine dealer named Carlos Vignali from a glittering array of Latino community leaders in California, along with leading Golden State politicians and even a cardinal. Such letters are standard procedure in pardon applications, and their combined effect is powerful. The high-level support mobilized for the dubious pardons in the Rich and Vignali cases has generated secondary furors, and rightly so, within those communities.

Amid all the outrage and mystery, one accusation that should never have been raised is the charge of "scapegoating" directed at Mr. Clinton by some conservative Jewish activists. The notion appears to be that Mr. Clinton's citing of Jewish and Israeli support for Mr. Rich's pardon — most notably in his February 18 Op-Ed essay in The New York Times — was an anti-Semitic attempt to blame history's eternal victims for his own wrongdoing. This astounding allegation rests on two dubious assumptions: first, that Mr. Clinton's motives are already known for certain, and second, that the mountain of Israeli and Jewish endorsements he received managed somehow to have no impact whatever. The truth is that Israel and the Jewish community were not victims in this case, but willing participants.

Politics, lobbying and fund-raising operate by their own sets of rules. Jewish advocacy has flourished under these rules; when Jewish activists stumble, they should take their hits. For Jews to have lobbied a president, and then to cry "scapegoat" when he acknowledges their appeals, is disingenuous.

Mr. Clinton may well have cheapened the legacy of American justice. His critics have surely cheapened the legacy of Jewish suffering.

See Also:
  • An Unusual Snapshot of American Justice
  • Exposé: Using Pollard to Get Rich
  • The Clemency Page