Who among us has not used connections to receive an
advantage, to win a job, admission to a school, a special favor? Will the pure
soul who wouldn’t think of it please stand up, so we can have the TV cameras
ready when heaven opens its gates to receive you? Who wouldn’t call the friend
of a friend to find someone who could push an application for an ailing parent
who’s wait-listed at a much-desired home for the aged? Who doesn’t ask a doctor
friend to call the head of the department and arrange for a speedier test, to
help them bypass the receptionist, etc.?
That’s all that happened with the Presidential pardons, and
the expressed outrage of both the media and the public is hypocrisy at its
worst. Sure, it would have been better if Bill Clinton hadn’t been seen kissing
Denise Rich, and sure, it would have been better if she hadn’t given so much
money to the library or the Democratic Party, but only a child thinks something
wildly unusual happened here. People close to those in power get favors done.
And how do you get close to people in power if you are neither a genius economist
nor a movie star? You contribute-a lot.
The wheels of charitable contribution turn on people’s need
for favors. How does Harvard get its buildings or hospitals get their wings?
Through the goodness of wealthy hearts, of course, as well as through their
not-so-unreasonable desire to satisfy some need-if only the need for social
approval. Don’t think their relatives and dear ones don’t get bumped up the
application rung or placed in good rooms at the hospital. There’s nothing wrong
with that-or if there is, you’d better unravel the warp and weave of most of
our social relationships. “Who do you know and what can they do for you?” is as
much an American credo as E pluribus unum .
The Republicans know this, but they act shocked. Influence in high places? Oh,
The Riches needed a
pardon. It would make many things easier in their lives. It doesn’t seem to me
that Mr. Clinton pardoned Hannibal Lecter or Timothy McVeigh. The odds are
that, if you were caught with a little too much cocaine, you would likely never
be pardoned-and that wouldn’t be fair.
But fair is not the subject here. Connections are.
Precisely because Marc Rich was not caught with crack in the
breast pocket of his Armani suit, and precisely because he and his ex-wife were
able to make big enough contributions to be brought into the party’s inner
circle, he had the ear of the departing President at a crucial moment. Would it
be better if the playing field were level and money didn’t get you near the
sources of power? Sure it would. And when that happens, we’ll all be sitting
around on clouds and playing harps. People are mad at the Clintons, as though
other Presidents hadn’t done exactly the same thing (actually, worse). Mr.
Clinton may have enriched his library with his pardon-not so much a tit for tat
as a jolly rubbing of shoulders, I think (let’s hope it was just shoulders)-but
he didn’t get himself off the political hook the way Bush Sr. did with Caspar
Weinberger and the entire Iran-contra affair.
In post–Cold War America, the subject is money, not
ideology. In certain ways, I feel safer when people do favors for others-shred
documents, cover things up-for money than I do when they genuinely believe in
their mission, when they’re convinced that the laws of the land are there to be
circumvented when their own convictions require it. That’s really scary. That
the rich have better access to power is a fact of life, like the weather-just
take an umbrella. But if the ideologues are in charge, rush to your local bomb
shelter, because all hell can break loose.
Contributors to the
political parties-be they H.M.O.’s, oil, tobacco or gas companies, labor unions
or movie moguls-want something. So far, it’s legal; it’s American all the way.
So what is so terrible about Denise Rich contributing a lot and wanting
something in return? What’s so terrible about giving it to her? Didn’t all
these other contributors get something, too? If we looked closely at party
positions on this or that piece of legislation, couldn’t we see where our
representatives had been dining? It’s not tit for tat-legislation is not
purchased directly, with a sales slip to prove it-but it is rubbing shoulders.
Access is valuable, and that’s exactly what Denise Rich bought herself.
In the very fine print
of the Rich story, buried in a paragraph near the bottom, we learn that they
lost their daughter to leukemia a few years ago. This appears to have nothing
to do with the pardon story, but I’m not so sure. The fact stares out at me.
Ms. Rich looks a little like a society floozy, yes, but what is in her mind?
What makes her suffer and why? It seems to me that the anti-Clinton forces are
treating her like raw meat thrown into their cages. For pity’s sake, she has a
story, too-a sadness I can only guess at, a life courage I might not have had
under those circumstances.
The fact that Marc Rich
is Jewish makes me uncomfortable. That’s because there are people out there
using Mr. Rich, a financier who did a bad thing, as a way of tarring the rest
of us. Is his Jewishness part of the reason the press is engaged in such
sanctimonious hand-wringing? Is Marc Rich the latest money-changer in the
temple? I worry about whom the new broom will sweep out and whom it will sweep
in. But I am fighting off my Jewish anxiety here. I need to remind myself that
there are Jews in all respectable places in government (albeit not Dubya’s), as
well as in the arts and universities. They, too, are representatives of their
people. Only the haters will hate more. The rest will know that Jesus saves you
more certainly if you go to a Jewish doctor.
The Clintons-fornicating where they shouldn’t, feeling our
pain, trying to use the system for the best of ends, for the good of the
majority-are in need of a media-wise nanny. However, I remain amused by their
energy and boundless hope. In the end, they will be judged by the America they
led, by their spirit of inclusiveness, their good intentions, their freedom
from prejudice and readiness to dance. I don’t mind the occasional tackiness
they show. It’s our very own tackiness, our very own greed they reflect back.
Clinton haters, take a deep breath and get over it. Go find another dragon to
Now if anybody knows
someone who could fix my parking ticket, I’d be glad to invite them to a
cocktail party in my very own home.