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Former president Clinton swept out of office last month in a whirlwind eerily akin to the one he deposited on Washington's doorstep eight years ago. He stood at the center of the maelstrom with his now-trademark charisma and the same winds of impropriety were blowing: rumors of vandalism perpetrated by the outgoing White House Staff, the forced return of gifts totaling tens of thousands of dollars, a personal perjury confession in the Paula Jones case.
This time, however, the biggest scandal stemmed not from Clinton's sexual misdemeanors, but from him issuing a slew of last-minute pardons (a form of executive clemency which essentially "erases" a previous criminal conviction and restores citizenship rights). On his last day in office, the former president surprised the nation (and sometimes even his Justice Department staff) by granting 140 pardons and commuting 36 jail sentences.
The controversy lies not in the pardons themselves--Article II of the Constitution states that the president "shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States."--but in the people on whom the pardons were bestowed. Included among the group are Clinton's brother, Roger, who was convicted of cocaine charges, and Susan McDougal, one of Clinton's business partners during Whitewater who was imprisoned for refusing to testify against Clinton. Perhaps most troubling was the pardon of commodities trader Marc Rich, who was wanted on 51 counts of tax evasion, racketeering and violating sanctions against trade with Iran. His ex-wife, songwriter Denise Rich, has donated millions of dollars to the Democratic Party and to Clinton's presidential library. Also controversial was the manner in which these 11th-hour pardons were granted. Instead of working their way, as is common practice, through a legal review by the Justice Department and background checks by the FBI, Clinton reviewed the pardons himself. This is perfectly legal--the president need not listen to the Justice Department's recommendations--but highly unusual. Whether or not bypassing traditional procedure was due to time constraints, as Clinton has claimed, or because he wanted no official objections to the questionable nature of many of the pardons has yet to be determined.
What we can be sure of is the incredible outcry against Clinton's last official presidential act. Republican pundits point to the pardons as yet another example of Clinton abusing presidential power for personal gain. Justice Department officials were "shocked and flabbergasted." Morgan Stanley, who paid Clinton $100,000 to speak at a convention in Florida in his first non-official appearance since the pardons, got so many complaints that they issued an official apology to their employees and clients.
Is this, as Democrats claim, another Republican attempt to smear Clinton's name? He is hardly the first to grant pardons to those with whom he has political or personal ties. Former president George H. W. Bush pardoned six colleagues involved in the Iran-Contra affair, a move that ended the independent counsel's ability to prosecute the incident (especially significant, given that Bush was himself a key suspect).
But the allegations of Clinton critics, however partisan their motivations (a contestable claim, considering that Clinton appointed most of the Justice Department officials who have spoken out against the pardons), should be considered seriously. Even for those willing to overlook Clinton's (many) personal failings in light of his political successes, it has become impossible to claim that the perfidious nature of Clinton's personal life did not irrevocably taint his ability to serve his country as a statesman.
Clinton unabashedly demonstrated that access to the presidency and all of its legal and political benefits were for sale if the price--paid in campaign donations, fundraising efforts or sexual favors--was right. The pardons that Clinton granted last month seem to embody this "favor for access" exchange; and while it would be naive to believe there is some way to completely eradicate this sort of behavior in the government, it would similarly be folly not to have Clinton's most recent actions serve as a wake-up call.
Unfortunately, eliminating the executive pardon is not a viable solution. Legal experts point to the near-impossibility of placing restrictions or removing such an enumerated power of the Chief Executive without a Constitutional amendment.
Instead, it would be prudent for campaign finance reform advocates to capitalize upon the anger generated by this latest example of the corruptibility of the government. The McCain-Feingold bill, which would ban soft money and restrict political action committee activity, now has 60 Senate votes and will soon hit the floor. Passing this bill will begin the attack against one facet of a political system with enough loopholes to make the "favor for access" exchange legal. We can only hope that President George W. Bush, in the spirit of such reform, will refrain from pardoning for political or monetary gain in the future.
Alixandra E. Smith '02 is a government concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.
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