Advocates of campaign finance reform have seized on the Marc Rich pardon -- and the $1 million Rich's ex-wife gave to the Democratic Party -- as a powerful new argument for reform. Now reform may be needed, but it is hard to believe that a different campaign finance law would have made Bill Clinton any less likely to abuse the pardon power.
After all, he didn't just pardon for money. He also pardoned for votes. Perhaps even more outrageous than the Rich pardon was the commutation he issued to the four New York Hasidim who set up a totally fraudulent religious institution to bilk the government out of millions of dollars.
Now we can't prove that Clinton traded this pardon for this isolated sect's political support of Hillary Clinton. But we do know that this village voted 1,359 to 10 for the new senator. Mrs. Clinton admits that she was at a meeting of New Square village Hasidic leaders with the president in which they pleaded the case for clemency. There is no way to prove a quid pro quo. But then, the Clintons have been especially diligent in covering their tracks in similar dealings over the last 20 years.
Perhaps the best measure of a president's corruption is how many laws are changed in order to prevent future presidents from acting as scandalously as this one. One of Nixon's legacies, for example, is the Watergate campaign finance laws. There is now a flurry of proposed changes in the law to prevent future presidential couples from doing what the Clintons have done. Ever since his outrageous 1999 pardon of Puerto Rican terrorists, there is serious discussion of curbing the pardon power.
We're also in the midst of a movement to reform the campaign finance laws, which were shredded by the 1996 Clinton campaign. Up until then there were violations of the "soft money" rules, but there was at least a pretense of distinguishing soft money -- which was not to be used for the direct support of a candidate -- from hard money. The massive and shameless violation of this distinction by Clinton left rubble where these laws had stood. By the 2000 campaign, both Republicans and Democrats, bathing in soft money, were flagrantly ignoring restrictions on its use.
Another law that is a candidate for revision is the statute on senatorial gifts. There is a $50 limit for any gift that can be accepted by a senator. Sen. Clinton has declared $190,027 in gifts received by the first family, including some received just before her swearing in. The law had not quite foreseen the Clintonesque device of taking gifts after the election but before the swearing in. We may get an amendment to the gift law that will be known for closing the Clinton loophole.
And just when you thought there'd be enough laws testifying to the prodigious creativity of this couple in abusing their power and position, we now have Bill's new digs. Clinton is preparing to take office space in some of the most expensive real estate in New York: a full floor in the Carnegie Hall Tower overlooking Central Park. It is more than eight times the size of the Oval Office. The rent -- $700,000 per year, borne, of course, not by him but by the taxpayers -- is more than the office rent of his four predecessors combined.
This sky-high pad is so out of line that Congress will undoubtedly revisit the law that finances the life of ex-presidents. This particular law was instituted in 1958 to help Harry Truman, who left office poor, and to ensure that Dwight Eisenhower, who wasn't rich, would be able to have a respectable retirement. It was not intended to provide a penthouse pad for an ex-president hungering for a Hollywood lifestyle.
In his last few months in office, Clinton was frantically searching for a legacy. Now he has it: We may end up with a whole slew of laws -- on campaign finance, pardon power, senatorial gifts and ex-presidential financial support -- that will stand as a monument to his arrogance and vulgarity.
The Washington Post Writers Group