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Down The Memory Hole

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
02.27.2001 | POLITICS

Everyone has their own reasons for disliking Bill Clinton. You can despise his politics from the right or the left, deplore his all around sliminess, or get technical about the definition of a blowjob.

I personally do not like the man for the first reason. As has been written about at length in left journals, Clinton betrayed virtually every liberal cause he should have championed: the poor, the environment, gays in the military, antitrust law--the list goes on. Dragging the Democratic party to the right has hurt millions of Americans and weakened the power of the Party to act as a future motor for progressive change in the US. This and this pisses me off.

But listening to the American media, one gets the impression that the problem with Clinton was not that he illegally bombed other nations, not that he pushed poor mothers off welfare while jacking up military spending, not that he gutted the Kyoto protocol--but rather that he received oral sex, fibbed about it and later let some slimy rich friends of his off the hook during his last days in power. But since the establishment media insists that these are indeed his 'offenses' let's look at them as such.

The first offense, extramarital getting down, is not illegal in the United States of America. The second of charge on the list--fibbing under oath--does constitute a crime for a President, and an inquiry and censure was justified. That it should have taken so much time and energy was ludicrous, but an investigation of perjury is understandable.

The idea currently being pumped around the country that Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich warrants investigation, however, is just silly. Presidents have the Constitutional right to unlimited pardon. They can pardon anybody except themselves. It is certainly unnerving that Clinton pardoned a cokehead financier while letting Leonard Peltier rot to death in prison, but the choice was legal nonetheless. Whatever the circumstances around the pardon, it makes no difference. Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, even though Tricky Dick had committed far worse offenses at a far higher level than anyone on Clinton's list.

But that's ancient history; I understand if the media chooses not to go so far back to offer Americans perspective on the controversial Clinton pardons. Less ancient, however, and holding not a little political relevance given the new President, is the pardon list of Clinton's immediate predecessor, George Herbert Walker Bush.

It is a well-known fact in journalism (and politics) that the year's slowest news day in Christmas. And so on Christmas Eve, December 24th 1992, outgoing president George Bush pardoned 24 people then under criminal investigation. Among these were six high ranking officials in the Reagan-Bush administrations and the CIA, including former Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, former assistant to the Secretary of State Elliot Abrams, and former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane--all then under investigation for their roles in the Iran-Contra affair. Like Nixon's infamous 'Christmas bombing' of North Vietnam, these are now known as the 'Christmas pardons.'

Amidst the uproar surrounding the pardon of Marc Rich and friends, it is worth remembering these Bush pardons involved men who had committed serious violations against both US and international law, to say nothing of their contempt for the US Constitution. They knowingly committed shadow diplomacy with a foreign government (with Iran in the run-up to the 1980 election), transported narcotics on United States military planes for sale to American citizens (roughly 1983--1986), funded a proxy war against the Sandanista government in violation of international law and the legislative branch of the US government, and--"I did not have sexual relations with that woman"--lied to Congress about it. Repeatedly.

In other words, these were bad, bad men responsible for very, very bad things that hurt and killed a lot of people. But compared to Marc Rich, these Bush pardons were and are considered relatively uncontroversial. By what calculus do reporters and pundits muster outrage over Clinton's pardons? Do they still agree with Bush, who described the Iran-Contra defendants as "true patriots"? Or is all of that simply too painful to remember? Are they really so shocked that money curries favor in the White House? Not wanting to bring back any of that "bitterness" Bush sought to end when he made the pardons, the media has been content to treat the Rich pardon as if it was an outrageous event in the history of the Oval Office. It isn't. By refusing to put yet another Clinton "scandal" in perspective and by amplifying right-wing screams about "crimes", the fourth estate has erased the difference between slimy, everyday Democratic corruption and unprecedented, blood-soaked Republican corruption. The difference has simply been flushed down the memory hole.

Although unseemly, the Marc Rich pardon was ultimately just about money, that dull blood pumping through the veins of our capital and its two parties. Rich's family gave a lot of it to the Clinton coffers and was rewarded--just like Mobil or Microsoft would expect to be rewarded. Yes he traded with countries facing (in many cases unilateral) sanctions by the US, but it is an open secret in Washington that so do many of the biggest American-based corporations. Rich was a comparative minnow; nothing more. His pardon further illustrates the personal faults of Bill Clinton and of our system of financing elections, but unlike the Bush pardons, it stops short of condoning war crimes and the sustained, extralegal and murderous abuse of executive power.

When soon to be inaugurated Bill Clinton was asked about the Bush pardons in 1992, he said he was concerned "by any action which sends a signal that, if you work for the government, you're above the law, or that not telling the truth to Congress under oath is somehow less serious than not telling the truth to some other body." This is a measured statement, but the essence of the point--that power should not provide immunity from justice--holds as much truth for Marc Rich as it should have for Casper Weinberger.

But the difference between these two men--the difference in the size of their crimes and pardons--is the difference between a pub dart and a mortar shell.

Let's remember that.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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