We learned a few things from Dan Burton’s hearings into the Clinton pardons. We learned that Bill Clinton’s pardon of billionaire expatriate Marc Rich was no last-minute rush job. According to testimony by White House aides and lawyers, Rich’s pardon application was the subject of multiple White House meetings over a span of weeks, with White House lawyers opposing clemency for Rich every step of the way. Clinton, always his own worst enemy, alone assented to the lobbying efforts of Rich lawyer and former White House counsel Jack Quinn.
We also learned that Burton, while filling a few nights’ bandwidth on the scandal-starved cable news channels, would evade every attempt to place the pardon controversy in perspective, rejecting repeated requests by Democrats to call witnesses and solicit evidence on pardons past. This is not to make excuses for Bill Clinton, but Burton’s refusal to examine past abuses of the presidential pardon power starkly reveals an inquiry called merely to humiliate and punish a political enemy and those who worked for him rather than explore policy questions.
If Congress were serious, these hearings would necessarily address pardons by Clinton’s predecessors, starting with Bush the First. Poppy Bush’s pardons of Caspar Weinberger and other Iran/contra felons have been widely discussed but still deserve closer scrutiny: Not only did Weinberger & Co. break federal laws, abuse high office and deceive Congress–their pardons gave every appearance of protecting Bush himself from investigation. Then there is Armand Hammer, who in 1989 gave $100,000 to the Republican Party and another $100,000 to the Bush-Quayle Inaugural Committee just weeks before Bush pardoned him for illegal campaign contributions. Perhaps most unconscionable, in a presidential pardon in all but name, Bush I freed convicted anti-Castro terrorist Orlando Bosch, whom even the CIA considered responsible for the deaths of seventy-three civilians in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner. In 1990 Bush’s Justice Department had Bosch in prison and was preparing to deport him when the President’s ambitious son Jeb interceded with the Oval Office, which, over the head of the Attorney General, put this unrepentant killer back on the streets of Miami.
The point is that Clinton’s pardons of Rich, Carlos Vignali, et al. are scarcely unique outrages. Clinton exercised his unreviewable pardon power in ways that reveal much about his character but provide no hint of illegality. So, what is the purpose for further hearings, beyond retribution? Surely not some constitutional amendment aimed at curtailing presidential pardon power, which despite the abuses by both Clinton and his predecessors remains the only tool for a courageous executive to correct a serious injustice (a category for which a few of Clinton’s pardons qualify).
The Clinton pardon fiasco does raise some important issues. Quinn invented a giant loophole in the law barring revolving-door influence-peddling in order to lobby his former boss. And cash for clemency remains an outrage whether it’s about Marc Rich or Armand Hammer. But such pardons are scandalous in the same way that Congressional legislation friendly to corporate donors is scandalous. The pardon flap matters primarily because it further erodes public confidence that anything in our constitutional democracy can survive the polluting power of big-money campaign donations.
Future Marc Rich-type pardons can be cured only by radical campaign finance reform–a far cry from the partisan dart-throwing on display in Dan Burton’s hearing room.