by William H. Benson
December 19, 2002
Late on the evening of January 19, 2001, Bill Clinton threw caution and counsel aside and signed his name to a document that granted a presidential pardon to Marc Rich, a fugitive living in Switzerland since 1983 and wanted here in the U.S. for tax fraud amounting to $48 million and racketeering charges. Prosecutors had desperately wanted to get their hands on him for seventeen years, and then Clinton in the last hours of the last day of his Presidency had pardoned him.
His three legal counsels later testified that they had strenuously argued against the Rich pardon and thought that they had persuaded Clinton to reject it. But then at 3:00 p.m. on the 19th Clinton had spoken to Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, and Clinton had tipped the other way.
It was a “highly questionable pardon”, given the severity of the charges against Marc Rich, and the fact that Denise Rich, Marc’s ex-wife, had donated more than $1.3 million in political contributions to Bill and Hillary, including $450,000 to Clinton’s library in Arkansas.
Indeed, Denise Rich had written a passionate application to Clinton begging for the pardon, playing on Clinton’s own resentment toward zealous prosecutors, and saying that she knew “what it feels like to see the press try and convict the accused without regard for the truth.”
The fury and the outcry coming from the legal establishment deafened Clinton’s plea, that “once the facts are out there, people will understand what I did and why, even if they may not agree with it.” Newsweek responded, “He couldn’t have been more wrong.”
On August 9, 1974 Nixon resigned rather than face an impeachment and possibly a criminal trial in which he stood a reasonable chance of going to jail, as did Haldeman and Ehrlichman and the others who had participated in the Watergate burglary and coverup. Then, on September 8, 1974, President Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon.
The outcry against this unexpected and unpopular decision colored badly the first days of the Ford Presidency. A month later Ford defended himself before the House Judiciary Committee, saying that he wanted to end the national divisions created by Watergate.
In his Second Inaugural Address Lincoln had pled for clemency for the South. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” He proposed that when at least 10 percent of the voters in each of the Southern states had taken a loyalty oath to the Constitution, each state could then return to the Union.
Following Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson wanted to continue Lincoln’s plan, but Congress, led by Senator Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens in the House, wanted revenge and retribution. So they sent down the Northern troops and created military dictatorships in each of the Southern states to ensure that blacks were freed and given the right to vote.
By 1868 Congressional Reconstruction had turned ugly. The political hatred went beyond anything seen before or since. The Southern whites boiled in helpless rage at Congress’s vindictive nature, and so they turned on the blacks with a ferocious hatred. When Johnson tried to stand up to Congress, Congress impeached him on trumped-up charges. Only one vote prevented Johnson from being ousted from the White House.
The poisoned atmosphere in Washington gave rise to an ocean of hostility. Suspicion, mistrust, denunciation, accusation, and bitterness broke down normal channels. And then in the midsts of all that hatred, on Christmas Day, December, 25, 1868, in his last few days as President, Johnson issued a Presidential pardon, an unqualified amnesty to all who had participated in the insurrection or rebellion against the United States. Congress was stunned at his temerity.
Right or wrong and for their own reasons, with a signature, Clinton had pardoned Marc Rich, as Ford had pardoned Nixon, and as Johnson had pardoned the Southerners. A pardon or a pound of flesh? Clemency or vindictiveness? The magnanimous gesture or retribution? Mercy or justice? Which is it this Christmas season? The angels sang on the Judean hills that Christmas night “Peace on earth. Goodwill toward men.” May it be so.