One Last Flurry of Beltway Smears

The latest Clinton scandal spasm was much like all the

others that had preceded it: a sudden deluge of facts, rumors, assumptions and

contradictions, mostly devoid of context, framed by weak, slow or nonexistent

explanations from the targets themselves. As usual, the outrage that greeted

the alleged misbehavior of the departing First Family and their associates was

selective and somewhat fraudulent. And all too familiar, as well, was the

collusion of the Clintons in their own embarrassment.

This farewell frenzy began with tough, fully justified

questions about the scores of pardons signed by Bill Clinton during the final

morning of his Presidency. Of particular concern were the mercies Mr. Clinton

bestowed upon the unrepentant fugitive swindler Marc Rich, and also upon four

felons from the upstate Hasidic community of New Square. Rather than grand

gestures of magnanimity, those pardons looked and smelled like small-time

favors awarded to political supporters in an abuse of Constitutional authority.

But the pardons issue was quickly overtaken by tales of wild

Clintonite excess, with the vanquished barbarians looting and vandalizing as

they fled. The Clintons themselves were said to have stripped the executive

residence of $190,000 worth of art, furnishings and various costly trinkets.

Many of those items had supposedly been given by friends and donors since

Election Day at the behest of Hillary Rodham Clinton, to avoid Senate rules

that prohibit acceptance of expensive gifts. Indeed, the new junior Senator

from New York had reportedly gone so far as to register her gift preferences at

Borsheim’s, a tony emporium in Omaha.

Meanwhile, gossip trickled out (to be posted instantaneously

on the Drudge Report) about horrendous offenses perpetrated by the Clintons’

faithful staffers on their way out. Anonymous sources claimed that the Clintonites

hadn’t merely removed the W’s on some computer keyboards, but had wrecked the

executive offices, cut telephone lines, sabotaged machinery and, of course,

festooned the joint with pornography. Then these Democrat delinquents were

accused, still anonymously, of absconding with every piece of linen and

crockery on Air Force One.

Encouraged none too subtly by the Bush communications team,

those stories enabled the Washington media to create an image they had long

wished for: the cleansing of the capital by an upstanding Republican. Like so

much of the media’s depiction of the Clintons and their associates over the

past eight years, this too was largely fantasy. In recent days, Bush adviser

Karl Rove has been heard chortling over polling data that showed how

effectively these smears had played into a 

desired propaganda theme of national renewal, according to a Washington

source. (Mr. Rove didn’t return a call seeking comment.)

The Clintons no longer possess their vaunted

“rapid-response” capability, but gradually the truth emerged about all those

awful accusations regarding their last days in office. More than merely

exaggerated, the stories of looting and vandalizing were almost entirely without foundation in fact. That didn’t stop them from being printed

and broadcast, with hardly an attempt at checking for accuracy.

Asked to verify the trashing of the White House offices, the

Bush press office quickly backed down. The Air Force released a statement

denying that anything of consequence had been stolen from the President’s

plane. Both Borsheim’s and Mrs. Clinton denied that she had placed any wish

list with the store. And the gifts turned out to be personal items given to the

Clintons over the past several years-with an inflation-adjusted value roughly equal

to what the elder Bushes had taken with them in 1993, and far lower than the

house bought for the Reagans by Presidential friends in 1987. (For a thorough

critique, see Eric Boehlert’s Jan. 30 article on Salon.com.)

The Washington media’s obsession with trivia and baseless

rumor does not, however, excuse the former President’s poor judgment on the

Rich and New Square pardons. Whatever reasoned basis may exist for those

decisions, it was clearly wrong for Mr. Clinton to stretch his own procedures

for granting pardons in those cases, while others who obeyed his regulations

got so little relief. It was wrong because the odor of favoritism was so

powerful, and because once again the wealthy and well-connected were proved to

have an unfair advantage in a justice system

that should treat everyone equally. Instead Mr. Rich, a man who

renounced his citizenship rather than submit to an American jury, was freed

from criminal liability, while more deserving citizens remain imprisoned.

In addition to being morally suspect, the Rich and New

Square pardons were stupid mistakes. They let the restored Bush administration

ostentatiously fumigate the White House, while simultaneously stinking up the

fresh start of Mrs. Clinton’s political career. For a man who is probably the

brightest President this country has elected in many years, Mr. Clinton managed

to look pretty dumb at the end.