Cashing In As They Check Out

bill and hillary clinton AP

Here's a good question for an exam in an ethics class: Which of the following activities of an outgoing American president are the most unethical?

    A. Granting a full pardon to a zillionaire-on-the-lam who never faced the charges against him and who never paid any debt to society, against the wishes of the prosecutors in the case.
B. Announcing a deal with an independent counsel to avoid prosecution for yourself on the eve of the inauguration of the next president.

C. Accepting and keeping $190,000 in gifts in your last year in office.

Take your time; this is a tough one.

I suppose there's really no right answer in this age of moral relativism. But only C is actually relevant to someone currently holding public office, someone in the taxpayers' employ: that would be Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

While the exact facts of when and how these gifts - mostly lovely items for the Clintons' Chappaqua and Washington homes - were procured are not yet clear, one thing is certain: Sen. Clinton could not have accepted these gifts after she was sworn in, according to the Senate's rules. These rules are intended to discourage bribery, as well as the appearance of influence-peddling and vote-selling.

Couldn't the nesting couple have just waited a week until Mr. Clinton, free from conflict of interest laws, could earn that $190,000 in an hour by giving a speech to some influence-seeking, vote-buying corporate interest? Wouldn't that have been the proper way to cash in?

Remember the uproar in 1994 when Newton Leroy Gingrich, about to become speaker of the House, signed a huge book deal with a company controlled by Rupert Murdoch? At least Gingrich, theoretically, was going to actually earn this money by writing a book. The point is, gifts and payments to members of Congress break the rules.

It is true that when the Reagans left the White House in 1989, twenty of their California cronies bought them a home in Bel Air for $2.5 million. But there is a difference: neither Nancy nor Ron were elected to the United States Senate. They really were leaving public life, something that probably won't be said about the Clintons for decades to come.

The ethical issues here obviously pale before the tackiness issues; the sheer low rent of the First Couple getting $4,920 worth of fine china from the producer of E.T. It has been reported elsewhere that a Los Angeles friend essentially arranged for the Clintons to be registered for desired home furnishings, like well-off newlyweds. That allegation has been denied.

But look at the gift list: flatware ($4,944), sofa ($2,843), four sets of china (between $4,787 and $5,000 each), two coffee tables and two chairs ($7,375, from the ex-wife of the pardoned zillionaire-on-the-lam), a kitchen table and chairs ($3,650), and many more fabulous goods and merchandise. It does appear that there's more than an invisible hand guiding this market.

It is quite mystifyingNot that the Clintons would arrange for or accept these gifts. You'd have to be a real sucker to be surprised by that. But who would give these presents to these people? It must be some kind of weird Stockholm Syndrome.

What, for example, was Mr. Steve Mittman of New York thinking when he bought the Clintons two sofas, an easy chair and an ottoman for $19,900?

"Honey, they were such a bargain, I couldn't resist. Less than 20K, can you believe it?"

Or maybe, "These will go so nicely with the $5,000 rug Mr. Martin Patrick Evans of Chicago gave the Clintons, I just couldn't resist."

I would find the gifts more understandable if I actually believed they were intended to be bribes or payoffs or access insurance. But I don't. I suspect these givers have already paid their entrance fees.

So what were Mr. and Mrs. Walter Kaye thinking? They're the folks who arranged for Monica Lewinsky to have that neat internship at the White House. "Dear, our last gift worked out so well, let's give the Clintons a travel humidor [cigars, again?], a china cabinet and a copy of speech by Abe Lincoln for $9,683!"

But it seems that many New Yorkers were eager to give Mrs. Clinton a present. She did get their votes.


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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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