Clemency for Clintons

September 13, 1999 - William Safire - The New York Times


It is as if Bill Clinton looked us directly in the eye, and waggling his finger, said: I want you to listen to me. I never discussed clemency for terrorists with that woman, Ms. Clinton. Not a single time; never.

That is in essence his line in pretending he was not using the power of the Presidency to help get the First Lady a job in New York.

A strong Hispanic vote in the city is vital to her election. His departing political counsel, Charles Ruff, cooked up a brief to spring the ringleaders of an 80's terrorist campaign. Many Puerto Ricans who condemn their violence and cause feel sympathy for them.

Although a charge of "sedition" has been an abomination in America since 1801, these were no mere protesters exercising free speech. These convicted gunrunners incited followers to "armed struggle" that resulted in 130 bombings that killed six people and maimed scores more.

Ignoring opposition by law enforcement officials, the least clement President in recent history -- who turned down 3,000 other pleas -- O.K.'d this one.

Then his political ploy backfired. When Hillary saw she was losing more upstate and suburban votes than would come from New York City Hispanics, she frantically reversed field. Too late; most of the convicts grabbed the deal to walk and are now hailed as heroes.

"I did not discuss it with her," insists the President who discusses every political angle with her.

Try that for credibility: he supposedly panders to an ethnic group his wife needs without even a hint from her, and when the misuse of his pardon power to shore up her campaign becomes a front-page controversy -- they never talk. He did it all for Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu.

Even as Clintonites got the queasy feeling that both Clintons were weaving another tangled web of deceit, the President plunged in deeper, suggesting that the enablers of terror had been wrongly convicted -- in his words, "in effect by guilt by association."

Those familiar with the McCarthy investigations of the early 1950's know what the phrase guilt by association means. It has the clear meaning of "smear." Those attacked for their friendships with the guilty are in themselves innocent -- unfairly besmeared by those using the sneaky technique of "guilt by association."

That gives us this spectacle: Surprised by the widespread disgust at his pandering to an ethnic group to boost his wife's candidacy, the President then struck back by demeaning police, prosecutors and jurors who put these criminals in jail.

Those apostles of armed struggle, Clinton would have us believe, were merely victims of "guilt by association" with those incited to carry out the bombings.

That's typical Clinton: brazen it out. And Hillary will stick by his story that they never discussed it at all. They will claim to be "not discussing" the timing of Jonathan Pollard's release.

What they cannot deny discussing, because both are famously familiar with influencing banks, is their $1.35 million mortgage assistance loan from the Democratic fund-raiser Terry McAuliffe.

This financial angel is a witness in a criminal investigation in the teamsters' fraudulent swap of funds with the D.N.C.

McAuliffe's continued close association with the President and potential senator is of value to him.

He deposits $1.35 million in Bankers Trust at a low interest rate. The bank then profits by lending that McAuliffe deposit to others at a much higher interest rate. It shares that profit with the Clintons by reducing the interest on their mortgage loan, reportedly saving them about a thousand a month on carrying charges. "In effect," to use the Clinton phrase, Bankers Trust is the Clintons' money laundry for private largesse.

The I.R.S. may not consider this benefit a gift, and the Office of Government Ethics happily goes into the tank for the boss. But Federal employees are forbidden to accept even a lunch from outsiders lest they be influenced; what are they to think when the President and First Lady can go on the take for a grand a month?

Both "never discussed" political clemency and the sleazy mortgage are ethical outrages. But the greater outrage is the way so many shrug and say: that's the Clintons for you.

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