- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2001

Bill Clinton is off the front pages at last, so perhaps now would be a good time to take stock of the controversy surrounding his eleventh-hour pardons. What with the criminal investigation by a U.S. attorney in New York and Democrats' fundamentally unresolved view of the former president, the controversy and the political fallout can hardly be said to be over. But it doesn't look like there's a lot more left to come out. Even some of the hard-core Republicans in Congress are losing their enthusiasm for the issue.

We'll start with them. As Fred Barnes has noted in the Weekly Standard, the epithet, "Clinton-hater" has lost its sting, thanks to the chorus of denunciation directed by Democrats at the former president. The idea that all of Mr. Clinton's troubles were the product of the fevered imagination of his political enemies, determined to do him in by any means necessary, just doesn't fly any more.

Mr. Clinton has his enemies, that much is not in doubt, and some of the die-hards won't be satisfied short of Mr. Clinton doing hard time. It's also perfectly true that some of his political opponents have let the charges they were making extend well past the available evidence (as if this were something invented during the Clinton administration; take a look at some Democrats' statements as the Iran-contra mess became public). But in the pardon brouhaha, they got from large numbers of Democrats what they never had before: a vindication of their view of Mr. Clinton.

Not that that's what most Democrats had in mind. But that's what they delivered. At a dinner in the middle of the pardon controversy, I ran into a friend who has been a prominent Clinton critic in print and on television. For much of the Clinton administration, she's had a bumper sticker on the back end of her car that said simply, "They're lying." Her fellow motorists were left to figure who "they" were, and she happily reported that from time to time on the road she'd get a big thumb's-up or horn honk of solidarity. I suggested to her that the time had come to change the bumper sticker to: "I'm just sick of the liberal Clinton-bashing."

Some Republicans have theorized that the vitriol of the Democrats' reaction was a product of the psychological toll of defending him for all those years. "Shout, Shout, Let it all out, These are the things I can do without" that sort of thing. That may be. But I think a more likely reason is that the pardon of a fugitive billionaire is something most partisan Democrats find indefensible, simply. This is plutocracy. To them, it's something a corrupt Republican president could be expected to do. In his previous troubles, by contrast, Mr. Clinton deserved a robust defense against his mean-spirited critics, in the view of the defenders, and he also deserved the benefit of the doubt whenever the evidence fell short. Even in the Lewinsky case, it was not especially surprising that Democrats were more offended by the independent counsel investigation than Mr. Clinton's conduct. In the end, Kenneth Starr himself opposed re-enactment of the law that created the office he held.

What many Democrats would clearly like now is to retain the view of the illegitimacy of the Clinton critics while criticizing Mr. Clinton themselves. Does that work?

Sure, for them. They are not Dan Burton, nor were they meant to be. The problem is that the Bill Clinton who emerges from their sharp critique didn't spring full-formed from the head of Zeus 12 hours prior to the end of his presidential term. It's the same Bill Clinton who was there for eight years in all now revealed by this case, in the assessment of his longtime supporters, to be a Bill Clinton prepared to use the powers of his office to promote his private interests, whatever they might be.

But this is and has long been, precisely, the case against Mr. Clinton. Leave aside the policy disputes (which, after the health care debacle, Mr. Clinton mostly won, and fair and square by the standards of politics). Throughout the scandals, his critics' charge was essentially the same: Mr. Clinton used the power vested in him as president (and previously as governor) as, in short, a public man for private reasons.

Now, it's not just his critics but most everyone who agrees this is how Mr. Clinton viewed holding public office. The famous compartmentalizer was unable to draw a distinction between the public interest he represented and the private interests he felt. He would act on the latter, rationalizing them as the former.

I was amused to read, at one point in the controversy, that Mr. Clinton had "waived executive privilege" to allow White House lawyers to testify about the pardon process. This nicely illustrates the problem. In fact, Mr. Clinton has no executive privilege claim to waive. Executive privilege, since Jan. 20, 2001, has been George W. Bush's to assert. The power did not inhere in Mr. Clinton, but in the office.

He never understood that, or if he did, he didn't care. And that is why, in the end, most everyone, from foe to friend, now sees him as the main author of all his troubles.


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