What the Clintons don’t get
Ionce had a boss who gave me some great advice, not just for managing people but for judging politicians: You forgive mistakes; you punish patterns. Everybody screws up. But if someone won’t learn from his mistakes and try to correct his behavior, then he either doesn’t think it was a mistake or he just doesn’t care. The one indisputable take-away from Peter Schweizer’s new book, “Clinton Cash,” is that Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton belong in the latter category.
Let us recall Marc Rich, a shady billionaire indicted for tax evasion and defying trade sanctions with Iran during the U.S. hostage crisis, Rich fled to Switzerland to escape prosecution.
He hired Jack Quinn, a former Clinton White House counsel, to lobby the administration for a pardon. Quinn sought help from then-Deputy Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., who advised Quinn to petition the White House directly — advice Holder later regretted. On the last day of his presidency, Bill Clinton pardoned Rich.
The ensuing scandal was enormous and bipartisan. It was widely believed that Rich had bought the pardon. His ex-wife, Denise Rich, had made huge donations to the Democratic Party, including $100,000 to Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign and $450,000 to the foundation building Bill Clinton’s presidential library.
Liberals were infuriated. “You let me down,” wrote the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen. “It’s a pie in the face of anyone who ever defended you. You may look bad, Bill, but we look just plain stupid.”
“It was a real betrayal by Bill Clinton of all who had been strongly supportive of him to do something this unjustified,” exclaimed then-Rep. Barney Frank (DMass.). “It was contemptuous,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) chastised. “It was inexcusable.” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd suggested Clinton had “traded a constitutional power for personal benefit.” Jimmy Carter all but called it bribery and said it was “disgraceful.”
You can understand the bitterness. Democrats had defended the Clintons through Whitewater, Travelgate and Hillary Clinton’s billing records shenanigans. They even defended Bill Clinton when he raised millions in reelection donations from Chinese donors and rented out the Lincoln bedroom. But this was just too much. Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us half a dozen times….
The Clintons said it was all a misunderstanding, which is what they always say. Quinn offered the familiar defense: “The process I followed was one of transparency.” Bill Clinton: “As far as I knew, Marc Rich and his wife were Republicans.” Hillary Clinton kept quiet.
Personally, I think Jimmy Carter was right, which is not something I say often.
But let’s assume it really was just a misunderstanding. Wouldn’t a normal person — never mind a family with historic ambitions — go to great lengths to avoid even the appearance of a repeat performance? When Sen. John McCain was unfairly lumped in with the “Keating Five” influencepeddling scandal, he said the dishonor was more painful than his five years in a Vietnamese prison. He dedicated himself to demonstrating the sincerity of his shame, including his decades-long — though intellectually misguided — quest to reform campaign finance laws.
There are no allegations of pardons for sale in Schweizer’s book. After all, Bill Clinton had none to sell anymore. But the Rich scandal was equally about the wealthy buying access and influence. And though there is no clear proof that Bill Clinton illegally sold access to shady gold-mining interests in Haiti or uranium moguls in Canada, no one this side of longtime Clinton defender Lanny Davis can dispute that the Clintons have acted as if they really just didn’t care how it all looked.
As New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait notes, the “best-case scenario” is that the Clintons have been “disorganized and greedy.”
The Clinton spin on the book is that there’s not a “shred of evidence” of criminal wrongdoing, or as ABC’s George Stephanopoulos helpfully repeated over the weekend, “there’s no smoking gun.” He’s right, but not being a criminal is a remarkably low bar for a politician, even a Clinton.
The standard is that public servants should avoid even the appearance of impropriety. But there’s three decades of evidence that the Clintons don’t think it applies to them.