Pardon for peace?

By Joe Conason

Published February 14, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

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Joe Conason comes through once again with a column demonstrating his great intelligence, insight and sense of fairness and reason. What a shame there aren't more out there like him.

-- Joan Willis

I usually agree with Joe Conason, but in his article "Pardon for Peace?" he has stretched too far in his ongoing string of defenses of Bill Clinton. Even if he is correct that the Rich pardon was motivated more by the lobbying of Israeli bigwigs than by payoffs from Denise Rich, how does it follow that has anything at all to do with "peace" in the Middle East?

At least three times in the article, particularly the title, Conason claims/implies that delivering the "favor" to Israeli dignitaries somehow promotes "peace." How the U.S. legal status of a fugitive billionaire businessman has any connection with the root causes of the Middle East conflicts, is completely beyond me. Certainly, the Palestinians could care less! Joe, you've really damaged your credibility this time.

-- Kerry Tatlow

How long did it take you to come up with this excuse? If there was any motive remotely noble in Clinton's pardon of Rich, I'm sure Bill would have told us already. He's just been waiting for some blindly devoted Clinton-lover to come up with an excuse he can make his own. I hope you get a thank-you note for your trouble.

-- Christine Clark

Joe Conason makes a pretty weak case that Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich was somehow ethical. It's not that Rich bought influence with our government, says Conason -- he bought influence with a foreign government, which in turn influenced ours. This is, Conason assures us, somehow salutary if it advances the cause of peace in the Middle East.

Even if we ignore the holes in Conason's argument that the Rich pardon was the only "carrot" Clinton had to offer Barak, we are still left with a profoundly disturbing scenario: a president who willingly circumvented established legal processes to grab personal glory (the achievement of a Middle East peace) in the waning days of his administration. I don't recall when it was ever permissible to run roughshod over our constitutional processes in the name of foreign policy goals. Nixon tried it, of course, but we were at war then. He was nonetheless justly condemned.

Fortunately, we're not left to ponder the merits of Conason's argument overmuch: Rich's ex-wife did indeed pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Clinton coffers, and Clinton himself did circumvent the established channels in granting the pardon. To borrow a phrase from the era of another morally delinquent chief executive, we need only to "follow the money." Presumably the congressional investigators are doing this even now.

-- Joshua Trevino

Joe Conason's article about Clinton's Marc Rich pardon/peace connection is incredible. What obviously is influence peddling, he twists into some absurd ploy for peace. If Dan Burton is a Clinton-hater, then Joe is a Clinton-lover. In this one, I'll take Dan's point of view.

-- Hank Olszowy

Of course, nobody remembers former president Bush pardoning Oliver North and Caspar Weinberger, et al., for trading with the Iranians. Honestly, the double standard!

-- John R. Doolittle

Joe Conason responds:

I didn't write the original headline over my column and asked that it be changed to reflect what the column actually said: not that Clinton traded a pardon for peace, but that his intense negotiations with the Israelis probably affected his decision about Marc Rich.

I certainly understand why people are dismayed and angered by the Rich pardon. Both on Salon and in my columns for the New York Observer, I've expressed my own strong criticism of Clinton's decision. Yet some of the letter writers above -- like others who have accused me of "defending" the Rich pardon -- seem not to have noticed that I called it "improper in both substance and appearance" and "a bad judgment that benefited a very bad man." Nowhere have I tried to "excuse" the pardon or suggest that it was "somehow ethical" or "salutary."

I do, however, believe that the evidence revealed so far indicates a more complex story than the simplistic "follow-the-money" narrative favored by Clinton's adversaries on Capitol Hill and in the media. I am by now accustomed to the abuse that often greets any skepticism about the conventional wisdom regarding the Clintons.

But I'm not alone in thinking there might be other motives behind this decision that were more significant than Denise Rich's generosity. As I noted, Joseph diGenova, who prosecuted Jonathan Pollard and is a longtime Republican adversary of the Clintons, believes that Israeli influence carried far more weight than the checks written by Rich's ex-wife. Readers who dismiss that view ought to read the e-mails, notes and letters obtained by my colleague Jake Tapper. Among other things, those documents prove that the pardon effort began long after Denise Rich's contributions to the Clinton library and the Democratic Party. Until late last fall, in fact, Rich and his lawyers were trying to cut a deal with the Justice Department.

Moreover, there is simply no evidence to date that Denise Rich tried to influence Clinton to help her husband in any way when she gave money to the library and other Clinton-related or Democratic causes. Later, she did try to persuade Clinton to grant the pardon. But her pleas were clearly considered insufficient by Rich's lawyers and associates -- otherwise, why did they expend so much energy organizing influence from Israel?

That question leads to another: Was Clinton justified in heeding the entreaties of Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres, and the former head of the Mossad, among many others, if that is indeed what he did? The Constitution affords him absolute discretion to do so in his exercise of the pardon power -- as it did George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford and all of his predecessors who also issued controversial pardons. That unique discretion was written into the Constitution by the founders precisely because of such "reasons of state."

I still think Clinton was wrong because Rich's money and connections should not exempt him from facing justice the same way that ordinary people must, regardless of any foreign policy or geopolitical considerations. But I also think we ought to examine context, complexity and all of the facts before making our own rush to judgment about this case.

By Salon Staff

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