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The Pardoner’s Tale and the Bush Cuddle

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

Most of the mainstream press is colluding with the Bush White House in news management as egregious as anything we saw in the Reagan years. Take the scam pulled by the Knight Ridder news chain in the run-up to George Bush’s speech to a joint session of Congress on February 27. On Feb 26 Knight Ridder, which publishes the Miami Herald, put out a story by one of the chain’s writers, Amy Driscoll, to the effect that if Florida’s Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, “had let south Florida’s counties complete manual recounts before certifying the results of November’s election George W. Bush likely would have won the presidency outright.”

This story duly allowed newspapers across the country running the Knight Ridder story to put up headlines such as the main front page banner used by the Bay Areas’ West County Times: “Recount: Bush still would win”. Very convenient for the White House. The new occupant of the Oval Office , living refutation of Chomsky’s view that linguistic skills are deeply imprinted in the neuro-cerebral program of every human, could go before Congress to make his case for giving money to the rich and to the Pentagon, as a bona fide, democratically elected president.

But the next few paragraphs of Driscoll’s story made it clear that Knight Ridder was playing a disingenuous game. The claim that Bush would have won Florida was reached by focusing narrowly on Miami-Dade and three other counties where Gore had asked for manual recounts. It ignored counts taken by other newspapers of other Florida counties, noted in recent editions of CounterPunch, which showed that votes for Gore were consistently under-counted. And of course the Knight Ridder story also ignored the damning accounts of how blacks and Haitians were frightened or bullied out of voting, and how a private company hired by Jeb Bush’s state government had struck many black voters off the rolls on the grounds that they had criminal records. Time and again this turned out not to be true.

The fundamental mission of the press is to endorse the essential legitimacy of the American political system. In the current phase, an incoherent and visibly underqualified claimant to the presidency is being fulsomely endorsed as a cleansing force after the squalor of the Clinton years.

Of course the Clinton years were squalid. CounterPunch has described them in detail. Many of the pardons were squalid, as they have often been in American history. You think this is new? You think Denise Rich, Beth Dozoretz and Hugh Rodham have no antecedents in American political history? Just to take the immediate aftermath of the Civil War people known as “Pardon Brokers” swarmed across Washington.

One of the most notorious was Mrs L.L. Cobb, a handsome woman who boasted to friends of the ease with which she could reach President Andrew Johnson. General LaFayette Baker, head of the National Protective Police (the US Secret Service), spends no less than 100 pages in his memoir “Secret Service” to a description of how he set up a sting operation in which Mrs Cobb secured a pardon from Johnson for a fee of $300.

Despite Baker’s warnings, Johnson delighted in the visits of Mrs Cobb, even as Clinton delighted in the importunings of Mrs Rich who visited his White House no less than 100 times. Finally Baker set a detective at the main entrance to the White House to keep La Cobb out, but she got to Johnson anyway, through the kitchen. Cobb also bested Baker in court, successfully hitting him with a false arrest charge.

Hammer Buys a Pardon
We don’t expect the pundits to remember Mrs Cobb and the other “pardon brokeresses” of the nineteenth century, but we do think they should have spent some time on the acts of mercy dispensed by President G.H.W. Bush.

Republicans squawk delightedly about the Rich pardon and about the vindication of their charge that Clinton is morally beyond the pale, the worst of the worst. Who do they think they’re kidding? Corruption of the presidential power to pardon? Forget Nixon’s pardon of Jimmy Hoffa in return for endorsement by the Teamsters’ of his candidacy. Let’s just take another look at those pardons issued by Bush Sr at the onset and conclusion of his presidential term.

In 1989 president Bush used his power to pardon a longtime Soviet spy who had been prudent enough to offer $1.3 million to Ronald Reagan’s presidential library, plus a further $110,000 disbursement to the Republican National Committee, this latter bribe being made in the week of Bush’s inauguration. The pardon duly came a few months later, on August 14, 1989.

The spy was Armand Hammer whose ultimately successful maneuvers for his pardon are described in Edward Jay Epstein’s brilliant 1996 book on Hammer, “Dossier.” Epstein narrates how Hammer had bizarrely hoped he would be in line for a Nobel Peace prize for his efforts to foster US-Soviet understanding. To this end he lobbied both Prince Charles and the then Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, who duly nominated him for the Peace prize. But Hammer discovered that no one with a criminal conviction had ever won the Nobel award. On his record there was the embarrassment (a trifling one given his amazing career as a spy and oil bandit, eliciting no less than six federal investigations dating back to 1938) of federal misdemeamor convictions in 1976 for funnelling cash to Nixon’s White House, aimed to buy the silence of the Watergate burglars in the early 1970s. So he needed a pardon.

Hammer made his $1.3 million pledge to the Reagan library and began to agitate for the pardon. The FBI alerted the Reagan White House to ongoing investigations of Hammer for attempting to bribe members of the Los Angeles City Council to the tune of $120,000 to give a green light to Hammer’s company, Occidental, to drill off the California coast. Nonetheless it seemed that the pardon would come through in Reagan’s parting hours. Then a hitch arose. Hammer had asked Reagan for a pardon based on innocence. As he had pleaded guilty to the misdemeanors (in returned for a lowering of the indictment from felony charges on grounds of obstruction of justice) even the compliant Reagan White House couldn’t oblige.

Hammer shifted gears, secured an invitation to the Bush inaugural of 1989 and greeted the incoming president with the request for a pardon based on compassion, simultaneously handing over $110,000 to the Republican National Committee. (Ever the businessman, Hammer felt that since Reagan hadn’t come through, he had no obligation to pony up the $1.3 million he’d promised to the library which later unsuccessfully sued Hammer’s estate for the money.) He got his pardon the following August, though alas not his Peace Prize which in 1989 went to the Dalai Lama. In Epstein’s book there is a picture of Armand Hammer and his mistress Rosemary Durazo in the company of the new president and his wife, Barbara.

Those Bush Iran/Contra Pardons
Now let’s go to the other end of Bush time. As he left town, Bush pardoned, among others, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, former assistant secretary of state Elliott Abrams, former National Security Council Director Robert McFarlane, and three former CIA men, Duane “Dewey” Clarridge, Alan Fiers and Claire George. Abrams, Fiers, George and McFarlane had all been convicted of withholding information from Congress in connection with investigation of the Iran-contra scandal. Clarridge was facing trial. Weinberger had been indicted by special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh on the eve of the 1992 election.

At the time of the pardons, Walsh said bitterly “It demonstrates that powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office ? deliberately abusing the public trust ? without consequence.” But there was more to this pardon than just getting some former criminal associates off the hook. Walsh said that new evidence had come to light in the form of notes taken by Weinberger, suggesting that as vice president Bush had been in the loop on the Iran-contra deals. Said Walsh, “In light of President Bush’s own misconduct, we are gravely concerned by his decision to pardon others who lied to Congress and obstructed official investigations.”

In other words, Walsh was suggesting that outgoing president Bush had pardoned Weinberger to ensure the silence of a man who could testify about his own criminal complicity in the Iran contra scandal.

These days Republicans are shouting that it’s unprecedented to pardon a man who has not faced trial, as was the case with Marc Rich. Walsh made the same point in 1993. Ford pardoned Nixon before the latter was indicted; and Bush pardoned Weinberger and Clarridge, post indictment but before trial.

One final point. Clinton is savagely denounced for using military adventures to distract attention from his own predicaments. Look at the timing of Bush’s sudden decision to commit US forces to Somalia. The concern with Somalia was always somewhat bizarre, but it sure did take those Bush pardons out of the headlines.

And now? Well, all this fuss about Clinton’s pardon of Rich sure distracts attention from the mountain of evidence that George W. Bush is the beneficiary of a fixed election. Which offense is greater: pardoning Marc Rich, or stealing the White House?

Dupes’ Lament:
“We Wuz Duped”
There’s nothing more distasteful than listening to a bunch of dupes suddenly announcing eight years after the evidence was in that they’d been duped.

The vultures are picking his bones: Salon, James Carville, Barney Frank, Bob Herbert, Lanny Davis they’ve all finally thrown Bill over the side. In the Wall Street Journal Hamilton Jordan stigmatized Bill and Hillary as “the First Grifters”, the term used for scam artists preying on the poor and the desperate in the Depression of the 1930s.

“The Clintons,” Jordan sneered, “are not a couple, but a business partnership, not based on love or even greed but on shared ambitions. Everywhere they go, they leave a trail of disappointed, disillusioned friends and staff members to clean up after them.” Against the Augean filth of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Clinton time, Jordan contrasted the elevated moral tone of the Carter White House.

If he, Jordan, had recommended something like the Rich pardon, “Carter would have thrown me out of the Oval Office and probably fired me on the spot.” As for Clinton’s hubris after Lewinsky-gate, “if a president can get caught having sex in the Oval Office with an intern and committing perjury about it to a federal grand jury, and still get away with it, what could possibly stop him?”.

Yes, this is the same Hamilton Jordan who is now happy to flail Clinton on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, a page which mercilessly abused him and his boss through the Carter years. And yes, this is the same Hamilton Jordan who did his bit for high moral tone in Carter time by leering across a the table during a formal White House dinner at the wife of the Egyptian ambassador and making a lewd crack about the pyramids. Jordan further enhanced the White House’s reputation by being accused of snorting coke at Studio 54.

And yes, this was the Carter White House which opened its doors to Henry Kissinger, who lobbied successfully for what could be fairly construed as a US government pardon for the Shah of Iran, allowing the deposed dictator sanctuary in the United States, thus directly prompting the takeover of the US embassy in Teheran.

As for liberal Democrats like the folks at Salon, why now? Salon stuck with Clinton through thick and thin, never conceding the jaunty corruption that has been Bill’s preeminent characteristic since the day he entered the gubernatorial mansion in Little Rock, but insisting all the while on his honesty and innocence on all charges. At the conclusion of her mournful parting of the ways with Bill, Salon’s Joan Walsh wrote, “If Clinton really abused the power of the presidency ? and the power to pardon may be the most sacred, in a way, beyond the bounds of any other branch of government to reverse or rectify ? as part of any kind of quid pro quo, political, financial, or social, he will have done what his enemies never could do: tarnish his legacy irrevocably, ensuring that when the moral accounting is complete, he is judged a failed president.

Failed because he pardoned Marc Rich? In other words, Salon could take the welfare bill, the effective death penalty act, the telecommunications reform bill, Waco, the war on drugs, the doubling of the prison population, the sale of the Lincoln bedroom as testimonies to a successful presidency.

But then Clinton spoiled everything by issuing a pardon urged on him by people normally held in the highest respect by liberal Democrats, among them Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres, Abe Foxman of the ADL and Elie Wiesel (if you believe the email traffic flowing through Jack Quinn’s office and no doubt on his billing receipts, though not Elie Wiesel if you believe Wiesel’s recent insistence to the New York Times that he had compassion in his heart for only one spy for Israel at a time.)

Yes, they’re kicking Bill over the side. Here’s Bob Herbert of the New York Times, another longtime defender: “You can’t lead a nation if you are ashamed of the leader of your party. The Clintons are a terminally unethical and vulgar couple, and they’ve betrayed everyone who has ever believed in them. As neither Clinton has the grace to retire from the scene, the Democrats have no choice but to turn their backs on them.”

Yes, this is the Bob Herbert who only four months ago managed to avert his gaze from the mountain of evidence about the ethics and vulgarity of the Clintons, and who lashed Ralph Nader for presuming to raise the standard of honesty and dignity in government. Bill has a legitimate gripe. Why now? The evidence in 1992 about the character of the Clintons and the likely contours of a Clinton government was in. Sure, you could make a calculation, if you cared to, that even factoring in this evidence, the Real Bill and the Real Hillary were a better deal than a second term for George Bush. And you could say that tacky as Bill’s affair with Monica was, it still offered no sound basis for impeachment. What you can’t say is that you had no idea what the Clintons were like until he signed off on Marc Rich, or until HRC put in a good word for those Hasidic Jews.

When it comes to moral calibration, what’s the bigger crime, for the entire liberal establishment to pardon Clinton and Al Gore for their welfare bill, or for Clinton to pardon a crooked commodities trader? CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

CounterPunch Magazine

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