Politics & Policy

Do the Clintons Even Care about How Their Myriad Scandals Affect Their Public Image?

(Andrew Burton/Getty)

I once had a boss who gave me some great advice, not just for managing people but for judging politicians: You forgive mistakes; you punish patterns. Everybody screws up. But if someone won’t learn from his mistakes and try to correct his behavior, then he either doesn’t think it was a mistake, he just doesn’t care, or he thinks you’re a fool. The one indisputable takeaway from Peter Schweizer’s new book, Clinton Cash, is that Bill and Hillary Clinton fit one or all of those descriptions.

Let us recall Marc Rich, a shady billionaire indicted for tax evasion and defying trade sanctions with Iran during the U.S. hostage crisis. Rich fled to Switzerland to escape prosecution.

He hired Jack Quinn, a former Clinton White House counsel, to lobby the administration for a pardon. Quinn sought help from then–deputy attorney general Eric Holder, who advised Quinn to petition the White House directly — advice Holder later regretted. On the last day of his presidency, Bill Clinton pardoned Rich.

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The ensuing scandal was enormous — and bipartisan. It was widely believed that Rich had bought his pardon. Denise Rich, his ex-wife, had made huge donations to the Democratic party, including $100,000 to Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign and $450,000 to the foundation building Bill Clinton’s presidential library.

Liberals were infuriated. “You let me down,” wrote the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen. “It’s a pie in the face of anyone who ever defended you. You may look bad, Bill, but we look just plain stupid.”

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#related#“It was a real betrayal by Bill Clinton of all who had been strongly supportive of him to do something this unjustified,” exclaimed then-Rep. Barney Frank (D., Mass.). “It was contemptuous.” Senator Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) chastised, “It was inexcusable.” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd suggested Clinton had “traded a constitutional power for personal benefit.” Jimmy Carter all but called it bribery and said it was “disgraceful.”

You can understand the bitterness. Democrats had defended the Clintons through Whitewater, Travel-gate, and Hillary Clinton’s billing-records shenanigans. They even defended Bill Clinton when he raised millions in re-election donations from Chinese donors and rented out the Lincoln bedroom. But this was just too much. Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us half a dozen times . . .

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The Clintons said it was all a misunderstanding, which is what they always say. Quinn offered a familiar defense: “The process I followed was one of transparency.” Bill Clinton: “As far as I knew, Marc Rich and his wife were Republicans.” Hillary Clinton kept quiet.

Personally, I think Jimmy Carter was right, which is not something I say often.

But let’s assume it really was just a misunderstanding. Wouldn’t a normal person — never mind a family with historic ambitions — go to great lengths to avoid even the appearance of a repeat performance? When Senator John McCain was unfairly lumped in with the “Keating Five” influence-peddling scandal, he said the dishonor was more painful than his five years in a Vietnamese prison. He dedicated himself to demonstrating the sincerity of his shame, including his decades-long — though intellectually misguided — quest to reform campaign-finance laws.

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There are no allegations of pardons for sale in Schweizer’s book. After all, Bill Clinton had none to sell anymore. But the Rich scandal was equally about the wealthy buying access and influence. And though there is no clear proof that Bill Clinton illegally sold access to shady gold-mining interests in Haiti or uranium moguls in Canada, no one this side of longtime Clinton defender Lanny Davis can dispute that the Clintons have acted as if they really just didn’t care how it all looked.

As New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait notes, the “best-case scenario” is that the Clintons have been “disorganized and greedy.”

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The Clinton spin on the book is that there’s not a “shred of evidence” of criminal wrongdoing, or as ABC’s George Stephanopoulos helpfully repeated over the weekend, “There’s no smoking gun.” He’s right, but not being a criminal is a remarkably low bar for a politician, even a Clinton.

The standard is that public servants should avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Not only is there three decades of evidence that the Clintons don’t think that standard applies to them, but there’s growing evidence that his biggest supporters are happy to play the fool — again.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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