Ballot Box

Bill Clinton, Chump

Why did Bill Clinton pardon Marc Rich? The most damning interpretation, offered by congressional Republicans and conservative commentators, is outright corruption: Clinton was either rewarding or anticipating massive contributions to his presidential library in Little Rock from Rich and/or his ex-wife, Denise Rich. The most forgiving views are that Clinton was either pursuing a foreign policy objective, granting a favor to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, or that he simply goofed, acting on impulse without really understanding the facts of the case.

None of these explanations, or even a combination of them, it seems to me, comes close to fully encompassing the sheer folly of the act. Criminal quid pro quo bargains, often suspected, seldom actually occur in politics. The Rich pardon wasn’t likely to help Barak either in selling a peace accord to the Israeli public or in winning re-election. And we know that Clinton did get some sound political advice, from his close friend Bruce Lindsey among others, about the risks of pardoning Rich.

Moreover, Clinton had to be thinking about how the Rich pardon might be seen. As we often heard during the last few years, Bill Clinton was intensely focused on strengthening his presidential “legacy.” In many ways, his hard work since 1998 had allowed him to transcend the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment. Then, with a single stroke of the pen, Clinton turned an aura of forgiveness and national appreciation into a tsunami of disgust. Even longtime defenders voiced their revulsion at what he had done. This reaction, if not the depth and longevity of the scandal, was entirely predictable. Rich was a wealthy fugitive from American justice with a spot on the FBI’s 10 most-wanted list. He hadn’t admitted guilt, been punished, or demonstrated contrition. Clinton had to realize that pardoning him was a sure-fire way to generate public outrage. 

What does come a bit closer to making sense of the Rich pardon is one of Bill Clinton’s less legendary character flaws: gullibility. Clinton is, to be sure, a brilliant man and a shrewd politician with a keen sense of where the interests of others lie. But throughout his career, he has often shown himself to be a poor judge of character. A naturally trusting fellow with a deep craving for approval, Bill Clinton is, to be blunt, a bit of a sucker. More precisely, he’s an easy mark for a certain type of hustler. Once convinced that someone is his friend, Clinton drops his guard and ignores crucial signals of intended exploitation. After it becomes clear that such a friend has taken advantage of his trust, Clinton feels bitterly betrayed. But he’s hardly savvier the next time someone with dubious motives shows up at his doorstep.

This figure of the genial swindler, the manipulative charmer appears again and again in Clinton’s biography. First there was the bald man in the ice cream suit, James McDougal. When McDougal, who described himself as a “con artist,” offered to make him some easy money, Clinton neglected to question either McDougal’s motives or his abilities. Another example is Gennifer Flowers circa 1991. Even as he suspected that his former mistress would sell him out, Clinton unburdened himself into her tape recorder. Yet another is Dick Morris, who promised Clinton political salvation, helped to deliver it in 1996, then turned on his client. Looking at these episodes, you have to wonder why Clinton didn’t exhibit the natural instinct of self-protection.

The latest “friend” to take advantage of Clinton’s naiveté is Jack Quinn. As a former White House counsel, a man privy to personal and presidential secrets, Quinn had Clinton’s trust. When he arrived to ask his former client for a favor on behalf a current client, Clinton did not suspect that Quinn might be abusing their relationship. As a result, Quinn royally fleeced him. Abusing his rare access, he acted not as a Clinton loyalist but as a Washington hired gun. He got what he wanted and left Clinton holding the bag.

Quinn was quite shrewd in the way he did his work. In letters and direct discussion, he presented Clinton with one side of the Rich case, highlighting the arguments that he knew would appeal to the president. He played on Clinton’s own sense of victimization by telling him that Rich was a victim not just of prosecutorial excess but of the special prosecutorial excess of Rudy Giuliani. Quinn misled Clinton into believing that Rich was not technically a fugitive from justice. He orchestrated pleas for sympathy from Rich’s ex-wife and daughter as well as from other public figures he thought Clinton would respond to. Meanwhile, Quinn did his best to prevent the president from getting the other side of the story. He used his knowledge of how the White House worked to make sure that the pardon office at the Justice Department didn’t get involved until the 11th hour.

Today, Clinton is said to feel deeply betrayed by Quinn. To which one can only respond, why did you trust him? There’s an old expression that says you can’t bullshit a bullshitter. But sometimes the opposite is true: Someone who isn’t trustworthy neglects to mistrust others. This seems to be the case with Clinton. Manipulative but not cynical, he assumes that other gregarious sweet-talkers mean no harm. Faced with someone who wants him to do something, he assumes the best of motives, not the worst. And that leaves the door wide open for a lushly connected influence peddler like Jack Quinn. 

Some on the right have focused on Hillary Clinton’s role in the Rich pardon, assuming that any corrupt deal with Democratic contributors must have involved her as well. But the evidence thus far suggests that Sen. Clinton wasn’t involved in the decision. Indeed, in the fascinating trove of documents subpoenaed and released by the House Government Affairs Committee, there is some insightful e-mail reporting on the views of Denise Rich and her friend Beth Dozoretz, a Clinton friend and Democratic Party fund-raiser who pushed for the pardon. In one message, Rich’s New York lawyer passes along a warning from Denise Rich and “her friend” (Dozoretz) not to approach the first lady or even discuss the case in front of her. The two thought involving Hillary would backfire. In this, Rich and Dozoretz were probably showing shrewd character judgment. Unlike her husband, Hillary Clinton is deeply suspicious by nature (especially when it comes to busty blondes engaged in late-night tête-à-têtes with her husband). For Sen. Clinton, once burned is twice shy. She does not assume that people who have helped her in the past have her best interests at heart.

There are institutional mechanisms that exist to protect a president from the kind of mistake Bill Clinton made in the Rich case–in this case a Justice Department pardon office, a White House counsel’s office, and lots of formal and informal White House advisers. So what explains the way Clinton’s personal credulity prevailed over the systemic checks? I think the answer lies in the former president’s familiar impulse to self-destruction. This impulse is not omnipresent, but rather emerges according to a pattern. Clinton struggles mightily to recover from a deep setback, such as the loss of Congress in 1994 or impeachment. Then, just when he seems to have regained the public support he lost, he brainlessly throws it away again. Then he begins the process of painstaking reconstruction once more.

With Clinton at low ebb, the cycle is shifting again. You saw it yesterday, when Clinton walked through Harlem, rallying die-hard loyalists as he declared his intention to abandon the pricey digs in Midtown Manhattan and set up his post-presidential shop on 125th Street instead. Clinton rises, falls, and comes back again, and again and again. Why not be more careful and sensible in the first place? Forgive the pop-psych speculation, but I would suggest that Clinton’s last screw-up was of a piece with his self-dramatizing, barely voluntary departure from the White House. At some level, he doesn’t want the country to put him behind it or “move on.” It’s as if he’d rather have our attention for screwing up than not have our attention at all.

Photograph of Marc Rich from AFP/Corbis.