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Pardon Me?

Sure, the pardons smell and the loot looks like shameless greed. But that applies as much to several other White House departures as it does to Bill Clinton's.

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Okay, the Clintons made a shabby exit from the White House. No one's arguing with that. I won't try to defend it, especially the Marc Rich pardon.

It's impossible to imagine what Clinton was thinking when he pulled that one, but I do have a theory as to what may have moved him to do it, more than Ehud Barak's importunings and maybe even more than Denise's money: Several published reports have indicated that Bill was persuaded by Jack Quinn's argument that the Rich prosecution should have been a civil, not criminal, matter. Hmmm. What other prominent American recently saw his civil perjury turned into grounds for a criminal prosecution?

I offer the above only as analysis, not defense. But I continue to be astonished at the hysteria the Clintons bring out in people. The fact that Washington gave them a few final licks wasn't astonishing. What is, though, is the way that hysteria erases memory and context and makes all sins Clintonian seem original.

They aren't.

Take the Reagans' house. Her publicists trotted Nancy out last week to assure America that everything about the purchase of their Bel Air home was on the up-and-up. A willing country takes her at her word, because the memory of her basically stealing those Adolfo dresses she was supposed to return is ineffably remote, and because, after all, no one could possibly be worse than the Clintons, right? To be sure, the purchase of the Reagan home, made in 1986 by a group of twenty or so friends for $2.5 million, was cleared by the government ethics office, and Ron and Nancy paid rent to their friends and eventually bought the place.

But: When the Reagan White House announced the details of the purchase in March 1988, the names of the friends were not revealed! They hadn't been revealed by the time Reagan left the White House, and to my knowledge they've never been made public. The papers that Wall Management Services, as the friends incorporated themselves, were forced to submit listed only the two directors -- Holmes Tuttle and Earle Jorgenson, huge Reagan moneymen going back to his days as governor. The identities of the other eighteen or so remained secret.

Now, honestly. Imagine the Clintons trying to pull that one. The Clinton White House would have been able to keep those names secret for about sixteen seconds before Dan Burton, the Indiana congressman who lives to hold hearings on the Clintons, and Larry Klayman, who lives to subpoena them (what are these people going to do now?), would have been screaming across the airwaves. The very fact of such an announcement would have constituted a major scandal, dragging on for days, or possibly even years, if a special prosecutor got hold of it. Indeed, the Clintons' original purchase plan on the Chappaqua house, under which they sought collateral for their loan from fund-raiser Terry McAuliffe, was a scandal that simmered along for weeks until the Clintons were forced to drop the plan and get a regular mortgage. Tuttle and Jorgenson helped finance Reagan's campaigns in much the way McAuliffe financed Clinton's, but their role in the purchase wasn't questioned at all.

If anything, the Reagan deal was far shabbier. But in 1988, these things weren't controversies; 1988 was the Stone Age. It was polite punditry; it was Agronsky & Co. Reporters peppered Marlin Fitzwater with a few questions, and Howard Baker popped out to declare that it was "an arm's-length transaction," and that was more or less the end of it. I searched high and low until I finally found an editorial that raised a few lugubrious questions about the deal -- in the St. Petersburg Times.

I'm not saying the Reagan house deal should have been investigated. However one feels about them, presidents have served their country in a unique fashion and haven't made much money doing it, and if their wealthy friends who think they've done a nice job want to buy them a house (or even furnish it!), that shouldn't be a scandal as long as there's no blatant quid pro quo, which is what makes the Rich pardon so smelly.

And speaking of pardons -- sorry, but the Rich pardon, bad as it is, just doesn't touch George Bush Sr.'s pardon of Caspar Weinberger. That is the Whopper of pardons, the Waterworld, the Ira Rennert mansion of pardons. Bush issued it, along with five others to Iran-contra-affair players, on Christmas Eve 1992. Aha, you say, at least he didn't do it in his final hours in office, like Clinton did. Turns out there's a very good reason he didn't. He had to act before January 5 because on that date, Weinberger was to go on trial for lying to Congress about his role in Iran-contra. Virtually certain to be introduced into evidence at that trial were Weinberger's diaries, which, or so prosecutors had hinted at in leaks, contained information about Bush's role in the affair. Mr. "out of the loop," as Bush once described himself, turned out to have been present at a few meetings on the matter after all, and the Weinberger trial was bound to shed more light on these meetings. Bush's pardon of Weinberger was, in essence, a pardon of himself.

Again, picture Clinton trying something like that. Say he'd pardoned James Riady, who was implicated in the 1996 China fund-raising scandal and who cut a deal with Janet Reno just before the Clinton presidency ended. Or Arkansans Webb Hubbell and Jim Guy Tucker, who still may or may not be sitting on information that could be damaging to Bill or Hillary. A source close to Bill indicated to me that, in fact, Clinton had exactly those concerns about how a pardon of Hubbell or Tucker would look -- as if he was really, potentially, saving his own skin -- and decided not to pardon them on that basis. If he had, the subpoenas would already be out and we wouldn't even be talking about Marc Rich.

By 1992, we'd left the Stone Age and just entered the tentative dawn of the Screaming Age, so the Bush pardon of Weinberger caused controversy. Editorials berated Bush, and various op-ed columnists expressed their outrage (most memorably Daniel Schorr, writing in the Times, who mockingly suggested that the only person left for Bush to pardon was himself). But in a week or so, the controversy had pretty much run its course and we were on to new crises. No one called for hearings. No one demanded the papers or fulminated about Justice's role.

There is exactly one good thing about Junior's "victory": Maybe some of this looniness will end. Not all of it -- the right still has Hillary to kick around. But there's no liberal Richard Mellon Scaife, willing to sink millions into proving that Dubya stole the bake-sale proceeds when he was 8. There's no liberal Dan Burton, willing to spend millions of taxpayers' dollars corroborating same (or, more often, failing to). There's no liberal Rupert Murdoch, willing to spend millions on a cable channel that's a forum for various people to scream charges without having the slightest idea or concern about whether they're true. This is a good thing.

I think.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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