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My Darling Clemency

The offer to pardon FALN terrorists inspired a textbook case of political hot potato as the mayor, the "Post," and even the cardinal lobbed burning spuds Hillary's way.

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They're still pounding away on old Bill down in Washington, what with Dan Burton's hearings and subpoena seeking information about Clinton's FALN-clemency order. Hillary seems to have survived the worst of it here in New York, but the episode is very much worth looking back on, because it suggests a pattern that will happen over and over again in this campaign if Mrs. Clinton doesn't develop into a smarter politician.

The FALN fracas, New York branch, is a textbook example of how (1) the mayor can use the power of his office, indeed his whole administration, to surround the enemy on several fronts; (2) the Post, when not checked by the city's more liberal press, can seize control of the local political agenda and drive the entire conversation; and (3) supporting conservative players, in this case the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, can deliver crucial support at just the moment that it will help delegitimize the other side. Let's examine each in its turn.

Giuliani's response was a skillful slow build. President Clinton's announcement of the clemency offer hit the papers on August 12, a Thursday. You would think today, given the ferocious volume at which the story has played out in the past couple of weeks, that the firestorm was immediate, right? But it wasn't. The first-day stories ran in the local papers as follows: the Times, section A, page 15; the News, page 10; and the Post, page 18. Similarly, Giuliani hardly came out swinging. His first response, that weekend, was a tepid one: As a former Justice Department higher-up, he understood the clemency process well and averred that before he really came to judgment on Clinton's decision he'd "like to see the pardon attorney's report." It was fully eleven days before the mayor finally started slamming the deal -- without, needless to say, the benefit of having seen the pardon attorney's report.

Why the delay? For one thing, it might be that the mayor was waiting to see if the papers would bother to recall Gerry Adams, late of the IRA, and his visit to Giuliani's City Hall in the fall of 1994, when the mayor took the unusual step of presenting Adams with one of those crystal apples that mayors bestow only on visiting foreign dignitaries of whom they wholeheartedly approve (Giuliani also, at that time, chided President Clinton for not meeting publicly with Adams). Anyway, the papers didn't recall the Adams meeting, and by the time the mayor started blasting away at the president, the machinery of his government was enlisted in the crusade: Police Commissioner Howard Safir held a press conference with other elected and appointed officials blasting the deal and later held one with law-enforcement people and their relatives who'd been injured by FALN bombs.

Maybe, also, Giuliani was emboldened by the Post, which, as we've noted, had been slow on the uptake as the story broke but launched it into hyper-space mode the instant it was revealed that law-enforcement agencies in the Clinton administration opposed the clemency. During the month following Clinton's announcement, the Post's overwhelming obsession with this story became evident; the paper ran something like four times the number of stories the Times ran. The News, too, kept the motor humming, but many of its stories -- since the News employs a few leaners à gauche like Juan Gonzales and Lars-Eric Nelson and, to boot, actually makes an attempt to represent the viewpoints of Latino New Yorkers -- were not anti-Clinton. Most of the Post's coverage, by contrast, consisted of blood screeds, with even the straighter news stories packaged in that inimitable Post way of being technically "objective" without really being objective at all. The paper ran more than a dozen editorials on the subject -- even going so far as to heap calumny upon Pat Moynihan, the one Democrat the paper has sort of occasionally liked over the years, and who opposed clemency (!) but is evidently an unforgivable Clinton-enabler -- along with a large number of opinion columns.

Meanwhile, the News and the Times ducked and covered, editorially speaking. Each ran one or two soft editorials that could have won Pulitzers for fence-sitting. I'm not saying, by the way, they should have supported clemency. But how about an editorial, for example, noting the juxtaposition of the domestic right's fury at Clinton and Israel's release, during the heat of the FALN controversy, of 199 political prisoners, many of them undoubtedly former or perhaps present (or future) terrorists?

Both the News and the Times handed the FALN story to the Post, and if they keep behaving that way, the Post will decide how this race is covered. And Mort Zuckerman wonders why people don't talk about his paper as much as they do Rupe's.

Possibly the most fascinating Post article to appear throughout the brouhaha ran on September 9: cardinal denies backing clemency. White House spokesman Joe Lockhart, in defending the clemency deal, had invoked the cardinal as one of several religious and political leaders who'd urged clemency. Not so, corrected archdiocesan spokesman Joe Zwilling; O'Connor's 1996 letter to Janet Reno "does not indicate or imply in any way that he has taken a position or was suggesting an outcome," Zwilling said.

Let's see. Here's the first paragraph of that letter in toto: "I am writing to you to request your review of the cases of 15 Puerto Rican Federal prisoners (identifying information attached) for pardon or other remedy that would serve the cause of justice." Don't know about you, but to me, that seems to . . . indicate? imply? suggest? that a pardon would (or let's be nice and say could) constitute a just disposition. If that doesn't grab you, then there's O'Connor's remark, quoted in Newsday, just three months ago, at the Puerto Rican Day Parade. That event was dedicated in part to the fifteen FALN-ers. The Newsday article is admittedly weak on the context in which O'Connor made the following comment: "There comes a time when one must begin tempering justice with mercy." But imagine yourself a pro-clemency paradegoer hearing the cardinal speak thus, and decide whether you might reasonably infer that it's an endorsement of clemency.

Whether O'Connor is backtracking on a previous position or guilty merely of leaving himself Clintonian wiggle room isn't the point, though. The point is that he has a history of injecting himself into politics, almost always in support of the right. He did so most notably during the presidential race of 1984, when he said he did not see how "a Catholic in good conscience can vote for an individual expressing himself or herself as favoring abortion" -- a bolt of lightning aimed directly at Gerry Ferraro. He can't honestly use that litmus test in this race, since both candidates are, by his lights, baby killers, but his obviously chummy relationship with both the mayor and the Post will constitute in the coming months a formidable trifecta.

None of the foregoing is written out of solidarity with Mrs. Clinton. She handled the matter abysmally -- with utterly no sense of timing and no real indication that she believed the clemency offer was either right or wrong from a moral point of view. Most of all, her fumbling highlighted the one real and meaningful aspect of her carpetbaggerism, which is that she has no history, no shared relationship, with New York's political structure. Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer gracefully bailed her out at a press conference last Wednesday, saying that "one disagreement does not trouble make," but the fact remains that if she'd really known Ferrer and other Latino officials, if she'd been to a few Bronx County Democratic dinners in her life, she would have had some sense of how to work with them, how to oppose the clemency without rubbing their nerves too raw.

Clearly, being Hillary is both a blessing and a curse: a blessing in that she's surely the only outsider in America whom New York's Democrats would have welcomed into the Senate race they way they have, and a curse in that every word she utters will be parsed by her foes with a toxic intensity. She must understand this, since she's lived under just such a condition for (at least) the past eight years of her life. But she shows little awareness of how that scrutiny works in New York, and if she doesn't get up to speed on it, then her campaign will consist of lurching bruised and beaten from one FALN-type catastrophe to the next, as the mayor and the Post, with an assist from the cardinal or Orthodox Jewry, keep her off her game. It's still the preseason of this election, but the oddsmakers can sense already that Team Hillary needs an offense.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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