How the Clintons Can "Earn" A Pardon

For much of the year 2000, the political-media world chewed over what would be the legacy of the presidency of Bill Clinton. Now the chat is about the legacy of his ex-presidency.

The ever-widening pardon scandal -- "hire me, I can get it fixed, I know this guy in the White House" -- has prompted various wags to wonder whether Clinton has fatally undermined his post-presidency and whether his moll (a.k.a. Hillary!) has squandered her senatorial second-chance.

Mere weeks ago, Democrats were happy to proclaim Clinton-the-Ex the titular head of their party, who would in his larger-than-life way press the party's themes, do battles with the nasty and illegitimate Republicans, and, more importantly, raise bundles of bucks for Democratic candidates. The party brahmin were so delighted with this scenario they elected Terry McAuliffe, Clinton bud and mega-fundraiser, to be party chairman.

Now Clinton has turned out to be a bad-boy bellhop who dumped a truckload of baggage on his party. Denise Rich, one of Clinton's more enthusiastic supporters, and Beth Dozoretz, the former Democratic Party finance chair and an intimate of the Clintons, have pleaded the Fifth regarding their parts in the Marc Rich case. The involvement of the Clinton-Rodham siblings in other hard-to-explain pardon business makes Clinton look like the king of the cronies. And on the night George W. Bush unveiled his specifics-lite budget and tax-cut plan during a congressional address, McAuliffe appeared on television and had to answer questions about the latest in PardonMe-gate -- rather than use the occasion for a full-blast at Bush's phony numbers and a trickle-down tax cut.

"A week ago we thought we were going to get out of this," a senior Democratic congressional aide said that day. "It looked like the pardon stuff would blow over. But it's like we stepped in shit and we can't scrape it off. Or worse, like this is some science-fiction film and the shit from outer-space keeps spreading and spreading. We've got to cut Clinton loose somehow -- and fast." That sentiment was not the exception among Democrats. With the pardons in mind, former President Jimmy Carter -- the George Washington of ex-presidents -- assailed Clinton's rectitude. Leon Panetta, who had been a White House chief of staff for Clinton, remarked that it was time for Clinton "to take a rest" and scurry back to Arkansas to work on his presidential library. (First order of business: return checks from anyone connected to a person pardoned by Clinton). "The New York Observer", a weekly catering to the smart-set of Manhattan, called on Hillary to resign her Senate seat. ("The Clintons are playing New Yorkers for fools. It is clear now that we have made a terrible mistake, for Hillary Rodham Clinton is unfit for re-elective office. Had she any shame, she would resign.") And Hillary's friends on the right rushed forward with advice. Calling Bill Clinton her "biggest liability," advised that "the only way she can shake off this albatross is get a divorce or some kind of legal separation." And Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly declared, "Look for them to separate within the next year."

Is all lost for the first couple of our favorite national soap opera? Is redemption beyond reach? Probably -- at least for now. And perhaps deservedly. But there are measures they could take to slow or even reverse their descent into post-presidency hell.

First, it should be noted that Clinton was not on the road to a grand ex-presidency before the pardons. Consider how he launched his life-after-the-White-House: by scheduling a series of $100,000-a-pop speeches before corporate crowds. He first spoke at a Morgan Stanley Dean Witter retreat in Boca Raton, Florida. And he considerately arrived early to play golf with special clients of the firm. That is, he rented himself out to the brokerage. Soon after, he appeared before an Oracle Corporation gathering and, then, a Credit Suisse/"Variety" magazine conference. According to "The Washington Post" he was considering invitations to speak at corporate retreats and conferences in Copenhagen, Monte Carlo, Puerto Rico, California, and Japan. A true man of the people. Sure, he's in the hole for a couple of mil in legal fees. But with the wife pocketing $8 million for her not-tell-all account and with him expected to collect a similar amount for his less-than-candid memoirs, Clinton does not have to be grubbing for corporate money. ("Nice shot, Mr. Jones. Boy, the investment team at Morgan Stanley really had a bang-up year. Did you see the gains in their Euro-tech fund?") Certainly, cashing in on the presidency is not unprecedented. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush both eschewed Jimmy Carter's help-the-disadvantaged model and bagged large amounts of money for blabbing before corporate audiences. But for a president whose campaign slogan was "putting people first," the rush to suck up corporate moolah seems particularly ignoble. And "Clinton: The Corporate Tour" undermines the self-righteousness he is trying to develop as an ex-president. At the Credit Suisse/"Variety" confab, he lambasted the media for neglecting social ills throughout the world. "I gave speeches while president on topics like climate change until I was blue in the face, but they were not deemed newsworthy by you," he huffed. Well, there's more to presidential life than speeches, and Clinton failed to note that the intransigence of "his" global warming negotiating team scuttled the last international conference on the Kyoto protocols aimed at redressing global warming. Moreover, how can Clinton present himself as champion of the planet's environment and the downtrodden of the globe, while he seeks to enrich himself by hobnobbing with the corporate class -- a group that in general has opposed vigorous global-warming remedies and fiercely combatted proposals -- such as Clinton's health care plan -- to extend medical and prescription drugs coverage to those without.

In any event, let's assume it's not too late for Clinton to rerail his post-presidency. He could establish a foundation to publicize the threat of global warming. Al Gore couldn't save the planet. Maybe Bill Clinton can give it a try. Or he could leave his new Harlem digs -- and turn them into a free day-care center for those Harlem residents who have not benefited from the New Economy boom -- and head south to the Mexico border. There he could establish an office devoted to improving the lives of Mexicans who reside in open-sewer and toxics-ridden communities near the maquiladoras, those poorly-regulated factories that have hummed ever faster since Clinton pushed through the Nafta accord. He claims he frets that the media doesn't pay attention to these matters. Since he's such a media-magnet, he could do much to highlight the plight of these people -- and the poor elsewhere -- by walking and living among them, instead of hitting the links at restricted golf courses between corporate gigs. And here's a similar suggestion: two words -- Peace Corps. You think Bill Clinton could fix irrigation pumps in Nigeria or organize a farmer's cooperative in El Salvador?

In the waning days of his presidency -- first in an interview with Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner and then with his pardons of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders -- Clinton questioned the excesses of the war on drugs. But during his previous years in office, he made no fuss. Rather, he proclaimed himself tough-on-crime, expanded the death penalty, backed an anti-crime bill that threatened civil liberties, and sent billions of dollars in anti-drug aid to Colombia and its human-rights-abusing military. If he has experienced a change of heart -- or lost the need to pander on this topic -- he could lend his name to the various efforts to undo the draconian mandatory minimum drug sentences. As a lawyer, he could assist those unfairly locked up. Clinton did have his law license temporarily suspended as part of his final settlement with Robert Ray, the last Whitewater/Monica-mess independent counsel. So, in the meantime, he could volunteer as a legal intern.

You get the drift. There are many noble endeavors an ex-president can pursue -- and still make ends meet on his annual pension of $161,200. Jimmy Carter builds homes for low-income persons and combats global infectious diseases. Clinton chases after the ca-ching/ca-ching -- while slamming others for ignoring the poor. Without the pardon-a-rama, his post-presidency would still be more about him than any cause.

As for Hillary, she too faces rehabilitation challenges. Granted, it's tougher for an in-office politician -- than an out-of-office politician -- to rise above the slime of the trade. But she could try. To deal with the stain of Giftgate, she can donate all the those presents to the poor (The furniture, China, and flatware could be sent to those moving into Habitat for Humanity homes built by Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter.) She also could take a million dollars or so from her unseemly-though-legal book deal and hand it to public interest groups that promote ethics in government -- say, the Center for Public Integrity. Her detractors will hoot and assail this as a cynical ploy. But money -- enough of it -- can buy a makeover.

To further renovate her image, she could deep-six her plans for a soft-money political action committee. Under New York state law, this PAC -- a sister organization to her HILLPAC -- will be able to accept contributions of up to $150,000 a year from special-interest groups and individuals. The money could not be used for congressional elections, but Hillary could disperse these dollars to assist candidates for state office -- thereby enhancing her own position in her hastily adopted state. Federal election law limits direct donations to Senators to $1000 per election, under the principle that no one donor should be able to shower any one candidate with gobs of money. The establishment of a soft-money state PAC would place Hillary in the company of other pols who exploit loopholes to undermine this basic premise of federal campaign law. And it would reinforce the view that she is an unprincipled, anything-it-takes, money-and-politics hack. Does she want to convince the public she's trustworthy? She could start by breaking free of the institutional corruption that degrades politics. Let her eschew big-money politics and all connections to soft-money. She can announce she will not participate in any of her party's soft-money endeavors. (That would mean, among other things, not attending soft-money fundraisers held by Denise Rich, the ex-wife of Marc RIch.) And she could state that if she seeks reelection it will only be as a small-money candidate, one who follows Ralph Nader's lead and accepts contributions of $100 or less. (With her notoriety, Hillary is better positioned than most candidates to obtain valuable TV time without having to pay for expensive campaign ads.) Hillary-haters would dismiss this, too, as a false, overly calculated gesture. Yet it could be the start of an all-new Hillary.

I know, Hillary becoming a renewer of democracy sounds as far-fetched as Bill turning into a global Cesar Chavez. The point is this: the Clintons have options that could save their post-White House days. But -- no shocker here -- they don't seem interested in these sorts of pardons.


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