Hillary Speaks

Hugh Rodham, the brother of the first lady, is paid a reported $400,000 to secure from the president of the United States the commutation of the sentence of a wealthy felon who sells cocaine and a pardon for a wealthy felon who sells phony herbal medicines. The president’s closest aide, Bruce Lindsey, discusses pardon and commutation possibilities with Mr. Rodham twice, on the phone. Mr. Rodham stays at the White House a few nights during the final weeks of the Clinton presidency and presumably talks to the president, who lives there.

In the final days of his presidency Mr. Clinton commutes the cocaine seller’s sentence. He also pardons the seller of phony medicines.

This week, when the scandal breaks, the president doesn’t deny that Mr. Rodham lobbied, and does not say whether the lobbying influenced him. (CNN reported yesterday that the president told sources he “couldn’t remember” if he discussed the pardons with his brother in law.)

Mr. Clinton did say, however, that he was shocked to learn Mr. Rodham was hired and paid to do the lobbying he did. He and the first lady asked Mr. Rodham to give the money back, and he agreed.

Yesterday Mrs. Clinton met with the press in the halls of the Senate. It was the first time she held a news conference since the pardon stories broke last month, and it was obviously a damage-control attempt. Another pardon story had just broken: Mrs. Clinton’s campaign treasurer, William Cunningham III, law partner of Hillary intimate Harold Ickes, took a small fee to represent two other men who received pardons.

Mrs. Clinton’s message, to which she hewed with impressive discipline: I had nothing to do with it, I know nothing, my brother made a regrettable mistake, you must ask the president and those involved if you want to know more.

That was the text. The subtext: I’ve been done wrong by the men in my life.

“I did not have any involvement in the pardons that were granted or not granted,” she declared. She said she couldn’t comment on any pardon questions beyond her stated disappointment regarding her brother’s actions. She said she was sure reporters would understand. She said she never knew about the Marc Rich pardon, and suggested that things had been very busy in the White House and that she had only an abstract sense of her husband’s actions in this area.

But the president does have the right to issue pardons, she reminded reporters; it is in the Constitution. She said there were many others who were interested in various pardons: “You know, people would hand me envelopes, I would just pass them.” She said these people were friends and relatives of friends.

About her campaign treasurer, Mr. Cunningham, she said, “I don’t know any more about this than what has been reported. . . . He did not talk to me about it. I did not know about it.”

She called many reporters by their first names. And she mostly spoke in careful, lawyerly locutions: “I do not have any information”; “As far as I know”; “You’ll have to ask [the president] and his staff”; “Again, with respect to any of these decisions, you’ll have to talk to those who were involved in making them, and that leaves me out.” She consistently deflected blame and referred inquiries. On Roger Clinton’s involvement in the commutation and pardon: “That’s one that, you know, was obviously particularly personal to my husband, and you’ll have to ask him.”

“I believe that, again, there is a context for all of this. . . . There have been controversial pardons made in the history of our country.” Everything she said served to detach her from Pardongate: “What goes into the mind of the person who makes the decision is something that is very hard to determine.”

Asked for a response to Jimmy Carter’s labeling the Rich pardon a disgrace, Mrs. Clinton offered a bland, “I believe that, you know, people will have to make their judgements based on the facts as they were available. . . . People will have to make their own decisions. . . . We all, I’m sure, make decisions in our life that we believe we make for the absolutely, you know, right reasons and the right motivations which someone can disagree with.”

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Most of what she said was rounded, soft, the sentences long, not directly responsive and difficult to quote. When Mrs. Clinton wants to be quoted, she is terse, direct and sometimes colorful. When she does not want to be quoted—that is, when she wants a story to go away—her sentences become paragraphs and the paragraphs are lengthy, indirect, and often lack clear subjects.

Reporters did not interrupt Mrs. Clinton and cut her off as they frequently do when a politician involved in a scandal holds a news conference. (“Sen. Biddle, why do all the women who work for you say you’re disgusting? Why would they lie?”) Mrs. Clinton was allowed to stay on message. She kept her cool, said what she wanted, and looked like the Hillary of the campaign, fully made up, highly tailored and combed out.

When one reporter began to ask why the Clintons always seem to wind up in these messes, she nicely cut him off with a joke, laughed and addressed the question as if the reporter were subtly backing up her repeated contention that people are unduly critical of the Clintons, perhaps because of their many achievements.

She exhausted the reporters. By the end their questions had grown pale. She said she didn’t blame anyone but her brother for her trouble, then said she didn’t blame anyone because “we don’t need to be making judgments about this.”

But of course we do, and the story will not go away. Pardongate is both the biggest Clinton scandal since Monica and as big as Monica. It has changed and is changing what history will say of the Clintons.

Democrats have been almost as critical as the Republicans; the liberal press from the New York Times on down has been denunciatory. Yesterday’s lead editorial in the Times was “Another Pardon Disgrace.” The only disagreement between liberals and conservatives on this matter is over this: Are the pardon scandals uniquely awful or are they indicative and illustrative of the essentially sick character of Clintonism?

A fight is brewing over the response to the subpoenas of the House committee investigating the scandals; the Clintons’ lawyers are ready to respond to subpoenas they deem reasonable but not to “fishing expeditions” regarding lists of names of donors and those who’ve pledged to donate to the Clintons.

Also, still brewing is this question: When will the Democratic Party, a great party with a great history that has held high the honorable banner of liberalism, finally come forward and renounce what should be renounced and remove itself from a shadow that has grown for at least five years now? And what will happen to the party if it doesn’t?