A Buy-Back Plan for Bill Clinton

It looks as if it's the season of image-rebuilding. As George W. Bush soaks up the Texas heat during an extended vacation (the longest presidential getaway in thirty-two years), his political aides are prepping for a fall PR campaign that will use modest, non-controversial, apple-pie initiatives (say, encouraging prison ministries) to portray George the Second as a caring and centrist fellow who promotes American values of concern and community.

Al Gore, the Man Who Would Be President, returned from his political self-exile -- with a beard! -- to organize a political training seminar in Tennessee with former Governor Lamar Alexander, a Republican and another presidential loser. The new -- or latest -- Gore is a grassroots political organizer teaching young people how to win campaigns. (Please, no snickering.)

And there's the unofficial candidate from last year's election: Bill Clinton. When he recently opened his Harlem office -- in a much calculated ceremony orchestrated like a political rally -- he was mobbed as if he were Nelson Mandela. Then -- talk about positive reinforcement -- Clinton was handed over $10 million by Knopf for his yet-to-be-written memoirs. He was on a roll after his ignoble departure from the White House.

Of the three, Clinton is probably best suited for an image comeback. True, when he left office, having issued inexplicable pardons for assorted crooks, there was talk his ungraceful exit would taint him for a long time and -- horrors! -- adversely affect his marketability. Obviously, those financial predictions were off. In addition to the book money, he's collecting millions of dollars on the speech circuit. For gabbing, he pocketed $1 million in May alone.

Certainly, a mega-advance does not make for a rehabilitation. (A reminder: Ronald Reagan bagged $8.5 million from Simon and Schuster for a two-book deal after he was through being president. To register a profit, the publishing house needed to sell between 300,000 and 400,000 copies of Reagan's memoirs. According to Michael Korda, the editor of the book, the firm sold 15,000 to 20,000, in what he terms "probably the largest disaster of modern publishing.") But Clinton could use the advance in an old-fashioned way to enhance his image. He can buy back his reputation.

This could be accomplished simply. Clinton has said that one of his post-presidency priorities is fighting AIDS in Africa. He could prove his sincerity -- and impress a whole lot of people -- by donating his advance to the international AIDS fund that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has established. Annan is looking for $7 billion to $10 billion in funding. The Bush Administration first agreed to kick in a stingy $200 million (about the amount Bush spent on his presidential campaign) and then grudgingly upped that to $300 million.

Imagine if Clinton said he was contributing, on his own, 5 percent of the original Bush amount. Perhaps a little less if Clinton cannot convince his agent to forgo his 15 percent cut and if Clinton contibutes only what's left after taxes.

Should Clinton take such a bold step, his longtime foes, no doubt, would accuse him of trying to bribe public opinion. But what would be wrong with that? This would be a keen demonstration that Clinton can put public interest ahead of private (or political) gain.

But what about all those legal bills -- $4 million or so -- he has to pay off? Don't forget that Hillary won an $8 million advance for her book. And Bill clearly will probably earn between $5 million and $10 million this year by speechifying. If they cannot live off these income streams -- and pay down their debt -- they ought to call Robert Rubin for financial advice.

And there's also Bill's next book. He reportedly is considering writing a mystery (will it be called "Murder in the Senator's Office"?), which should do just fine.

There's another reason why Clinton ought to consider devoting his advance to a cause worthier than his own portfolio. For his book to be a success, he will have to reveal matters that he has so far kept from the public. On many fronts, Clinton still owes the public explanations. It is unseemly that these explanations will only be provided -- if they are provided -- for a fee. And this point extends beyond Monica (or Kathleen Willey, or Paula Jones, or Gennifer Flowers, or Juanita Broaddrick). Take Clinton's lack of action when genocide was raging in Rwanda -- will he tell us why he did nothing, or will he stick to his assertion (long since proven false) that he did not realize what was under way in that nation? His cowardly treatment of Lani Guinier, his first nominee to head the civil rights division of the Justice Deaprtment -- will he explain why he disavowed her in the face of political opposition? Hillarycare -- will he forthrightly share the political calculations that yielded a cockamamie scheme that ended the opportunity for comprehensive health care reform? The Marc Rich pardon -- will Clinton tell us what really transpired in that deal?

Speaking of pardons, there is at least one other that still deserves far more explanation. On his last day in office, Clinton granted 177 acts of clemency, which included the commutation of the 15-year prison sentence of convicted cocaine-dealer Carlos Vignali. This act of mercy came after Horacio Vignali, the dealer's dad and a multi-millionaire entrepreneur in Los Angeles, had spent six years donating $160,000 to politicians and collecting statements of support from prominent elected officials for his son, who had been involved in a major crack operation and who remained unrepenetant. Last fall, Horacio hooked up with Hugh Rodham, an attorney whose practice at the time was hardly bustling. Horacio paid Hillary's brother $204,000 for help in winning a commutation for Carlos. After Hugh Rodham lobbied the WHite House, waving letters from influential LA politicians, Carlos found his name on the lucky list. The other members of Carlos's drug crew did not.

The Vignali clemency became part of the pardon scandal. Hillary Clinton declared she knew nothing of her brother's importunings on behalf of Carlos, and poor Hugh Rodham was forced by his sis to give the money back. But this month, a document was made public that had come from the Carlos Vignali file kept by Bruce Lindsay, perhaps Clinton's closest White House aide. The handwritten note on White House stationary said, "Hugh says this is very important to him and the first lady as well as others." The author of the note is unknown. But it suggests that Hillary may have been involved -- or that her brother falsely used her name. If it's the latter, how was Hugh Rodham able to fool the White House? When asked about the newly discovered record, a Hillary spokesperson said, "We have nothing to add to what's already been said."

Is that going to be the attitude when Hillary and Bill write their books? There is an inside story on the Vignali case and a great many other White House matters. In order to avoid a Reagan-like flop, the Clintons will have to provide new information about an assortment of important episodes. Which means they will only be leveling with the public for a buck.

The Clintons' fellow citizens deserve the truth about the Vignali case (and so much more) for free. But since that's not how valuable information is customarily delivered in the market economy, the next best thing would be the Clintons to take Bill-gotten gain and turn it into assistance for the less-fortunate. It need not be AIDS in Africa. How about a $10 million check to Habitat for Humanity? Let Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush hammer away all they want; Bill Clinton could pay for the nails. Or if Clinton truly is concerned with how the criminal justice system unfairly treats first-time drug offenders -- which was the spin his aides put on the Vignali commutation -- then he can set up a legal defense fund for victims of draconian mandatory sentences.

The choices are many. If money can buy freedom for a drug thug, why not a reputation for a former president?

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