- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 25, 2001

A lot of liberals are disgusted with Bill Clinton's pardons, and a lot of conservatives are disgusted with liberals for being disgusted. Not that conservatives are defending the former president. But they wonder why the liberals who vilify Clinton now didn't join in his earlier vilification by Republicans during the impeachment battle.

“Every liberal columnist and Democrat seems to want to get his moral distancing on the record,” jeered an editorial in The Wall Street Journal. “Now that the election is over and Mr. Clinton is out of office, liberals conveniently discover a moral afflatus and attack the man they protected for so long.” The Weekly Standard magazine claims liberals, such as those at The Washington Post and The New York Times, have “only themselves to blame” for the whole pardon scandal: “Had Bill Clinton been removed from office, as we suggested, such abuses would have ended.”

The new criticism of Clinton is taken as a symptom of rank hypocrisy. What he did on the way out the door, conservatives say, was no different from the actions that got him impeached. But back then, when it might have made a difference, liberals defended Clinton. Only now that he's of no further use to them can they admit the foul truth about him.

Of course, there's nothing particularly noteworthy in the fact that Democrats would be inclined to defend a Democratic president. Most Republicans, you may recall, somehow found ways to excuse Ronald Reagan for the Iran-contra affair — which involved the sort of behavior (selling arms to an avowed enemy) that they would never have tolerated from a Democrat.

When Democrats rally around a leader who's blundered, you see, they're showing bad character. When Republicans do it, they're demonstrating loyalty.

But there are good reasons why people who opposed the impeachment drive would nonetheless castigate Clinton for the pardons. The first is that many of these people (including me) did castigate Clinton for his conduct in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Shortly after the House voted for impeachment, The New York Times editorialized that the president was guilty of “serious misconduct” that was a “disgrace.” The Washington Post said his behavior was “odious.”

The debate was not between those who thought Clinton had behaved badly and those who thought he had behaved well. It was between those who thought his misdeeds justified evicting him from office, despite public sentiment in favor of keeping him, and those who thought the punishment was worse than the crime. Not to belabor the obvious, but there is nothing inconsistent in criticizing Clinton about Lewinsky and then criticizing him about pardons.

The opponents of impeachment didn't spend quite as much time laying out Clinton's faults then because they were too busy pointing out the unfairness, poor judgment, and vicious partisanship of his assailants. That's not hypocrisy; it's making priorities. This time, they can focus on what Clinton did wrong, without fear of aiding and abetting a bad cause.

But the biggest reason for the overwhelming chorus of condemnation is that what Clinton allegedly did this time is far worse than anything he did before. The articles of impeachment centered on charges that he lied about Monica Lewinsky, and encouraged others to lie, in a lawsuit filed by Paula Jones over a purported sexual advance. The case was about private conduct by a public official, and there was strong disagreement over whether that's what impeachment was designed to address.

The pardon scandal, by contrast, involves the apparent abuse of his office. Clinton is accused of doing something only a president can do — using one of his constitutionally granted powers in a corrupt way — and the evidence that has emerged so far is pretty incriminating.

We know he granted dozens of pardons that had not gone through the customary Justice Department review, which is almost unheard of. We know he pardoned his half-brother, as well as granting clemency to two felons who paid large fees to his brother-in-law. We know he pardoned a fugitive tycoon whose ex-wife gave lots of money to the Democratic party and the Clinton presidential library.

If the worst is to be believed, Clinton sold pardons and commutations for money and gave them away to help his relatives. You could hardly find a clearer example of a serious abuse of office. Had a charge of equal gravity been raised and proven by the House prosecutors two years ago, Clinton would have been expelled from the White House, and a lot of Democrats would have voted for conviction.

The rabid Clinton-haters say this final scandal proves they were right all along. But they bring to mind the boy who cried wolf. He raised the alarm several times when there was no wolf — and raised it again when a wolf finally did appear. The fact that he told the truth the last time doesn't mean he should have been believed before.

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