Hair-raising stuff from good ol’ Bubba

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Who would have thought that such a quaint and happy place like Arkansas, where nothing much happens to torment the razorbacks, disturb the boll weevils or curdle the barbecue sauce, could furnish the modern definition of “chutzpah.”

“Chutzpah,” a Yiddish word more often heard in Brooklyn or the Bronx and not easily recognized by the several varieties of Baptists in the land of deep, dark nights and the magic huckleberry, has heretofore been defined as “the attitude shown by the man who kills his parents and begs the court to shower mercy on a poor orphan.”

Now comes Bill Clinton, who auctioned pardons in the last hours of his presidency, and his shrill surrogate to berate George W. Bush for reluctantly commuting the prison sentence of Scooter Libby. The president stopped short of granting a pardon. Scooter had nothing to offer a president but a plea for mercy. (He paid the $250,000 fine yesterday.) But the Clintons’ record for never having shown shame for their perversions and peccadillos remains unique, intact and unchallenged.

Most men in his position would go miles out of their way to avoid talking about pardons, but good ol’ Bubba, with his skill at mangling and manipulating the language and parsing phrases (“it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is”), was eager to talk about how he conducted his auction. “I think there are guidelines for what happens when somebody is convicted,” the former president said. He should know. He was indicted once himself for high crimes and misdemeanors, and beat the rap only because several jurors were more eager to preserve the tattered dignity of the presidency than to mete justice. Scooter, having fallen into a trap baited by the special prosecutor and an obliging judge, had no confederates on his jury.

Bubba offered a hair-raising account of George W.’s sin. “You’ve got to understand, [the Libby commutation] is consistent with [the Bush] philosophy, they believe that they should be able to do what they want to do, that the law is a minor obstacle.” Scooter was saved from prison, he said, only to protect Dick Cheney. “What we know is that Libby was carrying out the implicit or explicit wishes of the vice president, or maybe the president as well, in the further effort to stifle dissent.”

Even Al Gore, who canceled his scheduled blast of hot air at a save-the-planet rally at Wimbledon in the wake of the arrest of his son in a Los Angeles drug bust, chimed in with a ringing plea for tough justice (for Scooter): “It’s different because in his case the person involved is charged with activities that involved knowledge of what his superiors in the White House did.” Say what? Anyway, different. Just take Al’s word for it.

The Marc Rich pardon actually is different. Mr. Rich is first of all a Democrat, and once indicted beat it out of the country just ahead of the sheriff and the posse. He decided to stay in Switzerland, trade in his old wife for a young blonde model, change the name of his company and start a new life. He assigned the discarded wife to lean on Bubba for another “do-over” for the indicted swindler. Denise Rich, the old wife, had raised $1 million for the party and had contributed $10,000 to the Clinton legal defense fund, and even gave Hillary $7,300 worth of tables, chairs, pots, pans and maybe even a mop for the new house. Bubba was raising money for his library in Little Rock and needed friends like Denise and Marc. What was one more pardon for generous friends in the final hours of a day when you were dispensing 140 pardons. Aren’t friends nice?

The White House had a little fun with the Clintons yesterday. “I don’t know what ‘Arkansan’ is for ‘chutzpah,’ but this is a gigantic case of it,” Tony Snow, the president’s press agent, said. When someone reminded him that Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, chairman of one of the House committees assigned to harass people, had scheduled hearings on the Libby commutation, he replied: “Well, fine, knock himself out. I mean, perfectly happy. And while he’s at it, why doesn’t he look at Jan. 20, 2001.” He could ask Denise Rich. That’s the day she took her checkbook to auction.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times

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