[This book review appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 245-247.]
The Final Days: The Last, Desperate Abuses of Power by the Clinton White House
Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2001
The Federalist Party is remembered, more than anything else, for its unseemly rush of last-minute appointments before Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801. Bill Clinton and his administration will be remembered for lots of things, but assuredly one of them will be the rush of pardons, commutations, agency regulations, expensive parties, solicitation of gifts, and plea-bargaining that marked Clinton's last month in office two centuries later.
Barbara Olson was a former federal prosecutor, legal analyst and counsel to a congressional committee – all of which she brought to bear to produce this hard-hitting, by no means neutral, report centered on the actions of those last few days. I say "centered on" because the book does not limit itself to those events but allows itself to recall a good many other abuses by Bill and Hillary Clinton over a span of several years, going back to their days in the Arkansas governor's office. The result is a brief book (240 pages) that, in addition to being a fascinating read and bringing together in one place the actions of the final days, serves as a useful compendium of the whole sordid history.
It is necessary to speak of Barbara Olson in the past tense. She was among those killed aboard the jet that was crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. The book had already gone to the printer, but the press-run had not yet been made. Regnery made the decision to go ahead with the publication, after its president says, somewhat inexplicably, there was some agonizing indecision about whether to proceed. The decision was a wise one, since the book is the testament that Barbara Olson would have wanted for what she stood for.
The book is a work of reportage, and it will remain for scholars to analyze what Clinton's behavior, and the American plurality's long condonation of it, means for the presidency, the nature of American democracy, and the cultural milieu of the late twentieth century. Those are subjects that deserve some profound reflection.
Clinton's last minute pardons and commutations came in two waves. The first was the "Christmas pardons" issued on December 22, 2000. Here, he granted clemency to 59 people, who included Dan Rostenkowski (former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who had pled guilty to mail fraud); Archie Schaeffer III ("chief spokesman for the Tyson corporation in Arkansas"); and Susan McDougal (involved in Whitewater). The emphasis in this wave was on clemency for several drug, tax evasion and fraud violators whose sentences were perceived as being unduly harsh.
The second wave came on the last day of Clinton's presidency. There were 140 pardons and 36 commutations, heavily weighted toward people who had used or distributed cocaine. Several were granted without having been put through the customary procedures. Even though the presidential power to pardon is unlimited, Olson explains that "under normal circumstances, the pardon process is highly regularized – to protect against corruption and improper influence." It involves the filing of a clemency petition with the Office of the Pardon Attorney, a process of screening and of possible consultation with other agencies and even with the victims, and the forwarding of a recommendation through the Office of White House Counsel. There are various Department of Justice regulations that apply unless overridden by the president, such as the rule that "a pardon will not be granted to a person who is on probation, parole, or supervised release." It is of some interest that Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist Paper No. 74, said that the pardon power had been made absolute precisely so that the president would be moved to approach it with "scrupulousness and caution."
Under cover of the large number granted, there were several major cases of dubious merit. Olson devotes an entire chapter to the pardon of Marc Rich, the international big-operator in dealings with Iran, Libya and Cuba who was indicted on 51 counts, including some under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization statute, and who became a fugitive overseas to avoid trial. The pardon speaks volumes about the power of money and influence: Rich's ex-wife Denise, active in seeking the pardon, was a major contributor to the Democratic National Committee and to Hillary Clinton's senatorial campaign; and Israeli Prime Minister Barak weighed in with personal contacts with the president. When told of the pardon, Rudolph Giuliani, who as U.S. attorney had conducted the prosecution, was "dumbfounded," exclaiming that it was "impossible, the president would never pardon a fugitive."
Others on that last day: Susan Rosenberg (Weather Underground revolutionary), Linda Sue Evans (who had plotted to bomb the Capitol), four Hasidic Jews (convicted of "swindling $40 million in federal funds," whose commutation bore no connection, of course, to the surprising 1400 to 12 vote by the New Square Hasidic Jews in favor of Hillary for the Senate), Roger Clinton (the first presidential family member ever to receive a pardon), Henry Cisneros (former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development) and his mistress, Patricia Hearst ("Tania" in the Symbionese Liberation Army, who had received a commutation from President Jimmy Carter and now a pardon from Clinton), Mel Reynolds ("the former Democratic congressman from Chicago who resigned in 1995 after a state court conviction for having sex with a sixteen-year-old campaign worker" and who had been convicted on federal fraud charges), and Dorothy Rivers ("a top official of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition," who had pled guilty to "stealing $1.2 million in government grants").
Even the clemency Clinton did not grant has stirred some public interest. Although he pardoned his brother Roger, he infuriated Roger by not pardoning Roger's prison buddies. Nor did Clinton grant clemency to Jonathan Jay Pollard, the spy for Israel; Leonard Peltier, the American Indian convicted murderer of two FBI agents who has long been the darling of the American Left; financier Michael Milken; or Webb Hubbell (Hillary's colleague at the Rose law firm, who had pled guilty to income tax evasion and mail fraud).
Olson's narrative isn't limited to the pardons/commutations. She tells about the 4,000 pages of last-minute agency regulations promulgated by the administration, Clinton's "midnight appointments" filling empty positions in judgeships and on various boards and commissions, and his plea-bargained settlement (on the day before he left office) of the perjury charge brought by special prosecutor Robert Ray. There were actions, too, after Clinton left office: the unprecedented expense of his office and of the presidential library; and the garish farewell party put on for Clinton at the JFK Airport on January 20 (arguably subject to criticism for drawing attention away from the Bush inauguration).
Since Olson's previous book, Hell to Pay: the Unfolding Story of Hillary Rodham Clinton, was about Hillary, it is no surprise that this present book recounts much about Hillary. The narrative also goes back into a number of memorable details about Bill, although these aren't treated as exhaustively as one might have hoped they would be.
In the years to come, the revelations about those years and about the Clinton couple will be endless. It invites a separate shelf in every thoughtful person's library. Barbara Olson's book merits a place on that shelf.
Dwight D. Murphey