Press Box

Coming From Clinton, That’s Rich!

The Times lets Bill lecture the GOP on business ethics.

In news stories and op-eds, critics from Warren Buffett to Ralph Nader have denounced the deceit, fraud, and outright thievery practiced by executives at Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia, and Global Crossing. Today, courtesy of the financial section of the New York Times, another moral authority speaks his mind.

Bill Clinton.

In David M. Halbfinger’s “Clinton Says Republicans Blocked His Audit Reforms,” the former president takes time out from a reporters’ tour of the construction site of his presidential library in Little Rock, Ark., to join the censorious free-for-all against corporate America. Clinton blames the GOP for the Enron scandal because it opposed his audit reform legislation. He also blames the European flight from U.S. markets on Republicans who prevented him from going after companies that hide corporate financial information in offshore accounts.

“And that is one of the things that has caused all the European money to leave the markets, because they see that the government is in the hands of the party that stopped all of this stuff,” Mr. Clinton said.

Now, it may be the case that every business scandal on the horizon can be reduced to Republican turpitude and filibustering and that Clinton’s reforms could have prevented these scandals. But even the loudest proponent of new financial regulations will concede that any law against fraud and thievery is useless unless enforced.

Or to put a finer point on it, where does Bill Clinton get off slagging the Republicans for thwarting his proposed laws when he shredded the laws on the books by giving a complete pardon to accused financial felon and fugitive Marc Rich? And where does the New York Times get off giving Clinton a soapbox to lecture the GOP without once mentioning the Rich case? (According to the Nexis and Factiva databases, no other newspaper reported Clinton’s comments this morning.)

Rich, you remember, was indicted in 1983 in federal court for evading $48 million in taxes and was charged with 51 counts of tax evasion, mail fraud, wire fraud, and racketeering. He was also accused of making illegal oil deals with Iran during the hostage crisis. (See this Time magazine primer on Rich and the Clinton pardon for a refresher.) Instead of facing the music, the multibillionaire decamped for Switzerland, beyond the reach of U.S. law. In January 2001, as Clinton packed his bags at the White House, he granted Rich a complete pardon.

Pardons are ordinarily dispensed to those who have served time, apologized for their crimes, or in the case of George Bush’s pardons of Iran-contra figures, were presumably acting at the president’s direction. The unusual thing about the Rich pardon was that 1) the government had an open-and-shut case against him; 2) he absconded like a common bail-jumper after his indictment; and 3) he never faced the music of a trial or a day in jail. By giving Rich a blanket pardon for financial crimes he almost certainly committed, Clinton surrendered the right to pass judgment on the Republicans’ style of corporate oversight.

Reflexive Times haters will attribute the paper’s credulous treatment of Clinton to the paper’s alleged liberal bias. But no editorial page in America published more vociferous opposition to the Clinton pardon than did the Times editorial page, which was conducted at the time by current Times Executive Editor Howell Raines. “An Indefensible Pardon,” the Times editorialized straight out of the gate.

Even before the Rich affair, Editorial Page Editor Raines made his distaste for Clinton apparent, berating him every at every opportunity. For Executive Editor Raines to give Clinton a soft ride in the news pages just to beat up on Bush doesn’t make sense: In journalism, the personal always trumps ideology.

Chalk up this miscue to mental tardiness on the reportorial and editing fronts. (I can imagine that a Raines memo on the subject has already been served to those responsible.) And look for a spirited bashing of Clinton’s easy-on-business governance in an upcoming edition of the Times.