Marc Rich’s Friends Are Suddenly Silent

The toxic atmosphere thrown up by a media frenzy tends to obscure the facts and choke off dissent. In the current uproar over the pardon of Marc Rich, the opinions of very prominent individuals-people who are regularly quoted in other circumstances because of their unquestioned rectitude and authority-are being ignored. Understandably, very few of those people are now rushing to the defense of Mr. Rich or his benefactor, former President Bill Clinton.

Consider the strange case of Abraham Foxman. Mr. Foxman is the longtime national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, one of America’s oldest and most respected Jewish organizations. He is a leading expert on racial and religious discrimination, Arab-Israeli relations and Jewish affairs in general. Whenever a question about any such matter arises, newspaper reporters never hesitate to phone Mr. Foxman for a statement, knowing how highly their editors value his views.

Not this time, however. Although his name appears quite plainly on the first page listing those who wrote to Mr. Clinton “expressing support for the pardon of Mr. Marc Rich,” few journalists have bothered to cite the Dec. 7, 2000, letter he wrote on A.D.L. stationery.

“I have known Marc Rich for years,” Mr. Foxman wrote, “as both a personal friend and through his generous support of the Jewish community in the United States and abroad. He is a profoundly generous man who despite his misfortunes has worked tirelessly for the good of others…. Marc Rich has made amends…. The extent of Marc Rich’s suffering has become disproportionate to his mistakes. His life has been committed to making the world a better place…. The prosecutor’s office has been unwilling to enter into any discussions about the charges, even when his daughter was dying in New York.”

The Foxman letter mentions Mr. Rich’s donations of over $100 million to various educational, charitable and social-welfare programs around the world, such as his assistance to the Palestinian Authority’s health clinics. “I have known you to be a generous and compassionate man,” Mr. Foxman says in closing. “Marc Rich and his family are deserving of that generosity and compassion.”

Certainly that reads like a heartfelt plea, and so it must have seemed to Mr. Clinton when it arrived on his desk. Yet now that the pardon has engendered almost universal criticism, the ever-quotable A.D.L. director-who prides himself on his willingness to take the heat for his beliefs-is uncharacteristically unavailable for comment. Calls to his office are directed to one of his associates, who won’t say much about this touchy matter.

Perhaps Mr. Foxman shouldn’t be blamed too much for avoiding the limelight at this moment. In the Jewish community, he and other leaders who supported Mr. Rich’s pardon are enduring criticism almost as harsh as that directed at the former President. The overwhelming urge to destroy Mr. Clinton now endangers the reputation of anyone, no matter how reputable, who dared to speak up for Mr. Rich.

Any suggestion that Mr. Clinton could have been swayed to pardon Mr. Rich by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, during the most critical days of the former President’s last attempt to salvage the Mideast peace talks, is rejected as an invitation to Israel-bashing or worse. But anyone who compares the timeline of those final negotiations with a chronology of the Rich pardon appeal will have difficulty ignoring the coincidences between those events.

Meanwhile, most commentators are quite pleased to ignore that uncomfortable aspect of this affair so they can yell about “bribery.” The prevailing opinion among Republican politicians, shock jocks and other national sages is that Mr. Clinton sold the pardon to Denise Rich in exchange for donations to his library, his wife’s Senate campaign and the Democratic Party. Among the facts which don’t fit this easy theory is that Ms. Rich’s habit of giving to Clintonian causes long predated her ex-husband’s pardon bid.

Another is that Ron Burkle, a California billionaire who gave 10 times as much to every Clinton fund and campaign as Ms. Rich did, was turned down when he requested a pardon for his friend Michael Milken. Mr. Burkle promised a minimum of $5 million to the Clinton library, compared with the $450,000 given by Ms. Rich. He and members of his family have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to every conceivable Democratic campaign, including Mrs. Clinton’s Senate race. Mr. Burkle and other well-heeled, Clinton-connected advocates passionately argued the Milken case, but they didn’t prevail on Jan. 20.

In this climate, though, accusations of criminal conduct need not be probable or even plausible. A shouting voice and a microphone will do.

There is a powerful consensus that Mr. Clinton reached the wrong decision after a flawed process. There is every reason to question his judgment and his conduct. There is no evidence to date that justifies a charge of bribery.