Ballot Box

Clinton’s Sorry Ending

Is there any hope left for the Clinton presidency? At the end of the impeachment saga, I held the unorthodox view that the former president’s personal failings would eventually be viewed as footnotes to his significant accomplishments, rather than the other way around. In fact, this turnabout happened much more rapidly than I anticipated. Most of the assessment pieces written at the end of the Clinton presidency cast the Monica Lewinsky scandal as a sorry episode in a masterful politician’s largely successful presidency.

This time, however, I don’t know that a comeback is even possible. The Marc Rich pardon and several of the other ghastly pardons have, it seems to me, come perilously close to ruining the Clinton presidency once and for all. There’s not much point in speculating about what historians will think decades hence. They may conclude that Chester Arthur was our greatest national leader. But for the foreseeable future, Clinton has nearly blotted out any hope of widespread public respect or of having a productive ex-presidency. He could have been Carter. Instead, he looks to become Nixon.

The pardons are less easily written off than the Monica scandal for a couple of reasons. The first is that they can’t be excused as personal peccadilloes. Flytrap could be forgiven as the private squalor of an incontinent man who was also a remarkable public servant. The Pardoner’s Tale, on other hand, has no “personal” dimension–or at least I hope it doesn’t. It’s purely about the abuse of public office. Even Clinton’s Stalinists aren’t saying we shouldn’t care about this one. Secondly, Clinton is at this point a recidivist. Through his tenacity and implicit promises of good behavior, he secured a kind of parole after impeachment. Then he betrayed all the people who gave him a second chance. Under those circumstances, I don’t think Clinton gets a third.

If Clinton does have a prayer of regaining our respect, it’s to grovel. He might be able to win back a measure of public esteem by apologizing for his mistake. But for such an apology to be effective, Clinton would have to mean it sincerely, or at least sound like he meant it sincerely. Clinton needs to convince the country that he now understands that pardoning Marc Rich was the wrong thing to do. He ought to say it was wrong mainly because it harmed public confidence in our legal system. Pardoning Rich sent the message that you can’t get justice from our courts, but that if you’re wealthy enough, you can always buy your way out of trouble later. Even at this late stage, it would be useful for Clinton to disavow that message. “If I could undo the decision, I would,” Clinton might say. “Unfortunately, I can’t. So I must try to make amends in other ways.” 

That’s the easy part of the apology. The hard part is explaining what he did without sounding like he’s making excuses. Moreover, Clinton has to explain his mistake convincingly enough that people who don’t want to buy into Rep. Dan Burton’s more fevered imaginings about explicit corruption will have a persuasive, alternative explanation. What we have right now is a bunch of theories that don’t solve the mystery.

Some of the reasons Clinton might give for the mistaken pardons are straightforward and relatively benign. He wasn’t sleeping much in his final weeks, so he was exhausted and rushed. He let people he shouldn’t have trusted, namely Jack Quinn, take advantage of him. Unusually, he didn’t do the basic homework of getting both sides of the story. To some extent, he was responding to appeals from Israeli politicians and Jewish leaders. As Leon Wieseltier argues in this week’s New Republic, these people were themselves doing something improper in lobbying Clinton on Rich’s behalf. But Clinton didn’t think that through, and the calls and letters from people he respected had some effect on him.

But then Clinton needs to explain what’s even more difficult to admit: how he became so embittered at federal prosecutors and the Justice Department that he took satisfaction in doing something behind their backs and against their wishes. Of course prosecutors do sometimes abuse their power and might conceivably have done so in the Rich case. But the proper remedy for the abuse of prosecutorial power is the institution of the fair trial, not the avoidance of one. And to make his story credible, Clinton also needs to acknowledge that money did play a role in his decision, as it almost always does in Washington. There was surely no quid pro quo. But people with resources are able to buy access. And access in the end equals influence. The system in Washington corrupts us all, Clinton might say, taking a cue from John McCain.

Such an apology and explanation could have a cathartic effect. By taking blame, Clinton would permit the people who are so angry with him now to forgive him. By explaining why he did what he did, he would satisfy those fascinated by the mystery. Assuming that those reasons really do explain Clinton’s bad pardons–as I think they most likely do–such a mea culpa would probably cause the current scandal to wind down. Deprived of shocking new revelations, Dan Burton would marginalize himself once again. The press could turn its attention to the remainder of George W. Bush’s first term.

But will Clinton say he’s sorry? History suggests that he is capable of recognizing the political value of apologizing. Clinton went on television in Arkansas in 1982, after losing a re-election campaign for governor, to say he’d erred in raising a car license tax. That statement, engineered by Dick Morris, is credited with making possible his return to the governor’s mansion. During the Gennifer Flowers scandal in 1992, Clinton went on 60 Minutes to accept blame for causing pain in his marriage. In August 1998, after he testified by video camera to Ken Starr’s grand jury, Clinton went on national television to acknowledge that he misled people about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. He copped to a “critical lapse in judgment” and “a personal failure on my part.” 

But Clinton’s apologies also tend to be grudging and defensive, sometimes so much so that they backfire on him. In 1998, Clinton turned what was supposed to be an abject apology for lying to the American people into a diatribe against Starr’s office. “It’s time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives and get on with our national life,” he said. Portraying himself as victim provoked his enemies further and fueled the drive for impeachment.

Clinton’s op-ed piece in the New York Times on Feb. 18 sounded this bitter, counterproductive note. He took “full responsibility” for his decision to pardon Marc Rich but sounded no note of remorse. His article was mainly concerned with offering legalistic defenses for his decision and putting the onus for it on others, such as Republicans who’d been attorneys for Rich in the past and the Israelis. As Christopher Caldwell writes in this week’s Weekly Standard, Clinton’s argument amounted to the lame excuse that “the Jews made me do it.” The self-righteous nonapology bought Clinton no leeway.

Will Clinton offer a more convincing sort of mea culpa in the weeks ahead? Sources tell me that some of his advisers have been recommending he do just that. They also say that Clinton is in no mood to say he’s sorry for anything. I would predict that ex-POTUS will end up making some kind of statement of contrition for his pardons, mainly because there’s nothing else he can do to try to turn the story around. But his words won’t go far enough and may even make matters worse. The problem is not that Clinton doesn’t recognize the political need for a compelling apology. It’s that he’s psychologically incapable of making one.