Clinton's Master Plan

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Commentary on the imbroglio over former President Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich by's Gary Paul Gates

A call came in the other day from my acerbic friend Joe Cynic, whom I had not talked to since a bizarre conversation we had in November, just three days before the election.

On that occasion he had phoned to tell me that because the battle for Florida's electoral votes was so incredibly close he would not be surprised if, on Election Night, the declared winner would "first be Gore, then Bush and then nobody.

"And not only that," he went on, "but I have a hunch that the entire presidency will hinge on the result in that state, and that the outcome – the eventual winner – will not be known until sometime in December."

I told Cynic he was crazy, and our chat promptly shifted to more plausible speculations. And for reasons that probably require no explanation, I did not bother – once it had finally all been resolved – to call and congratulate him on his clairvoyance.

When he caught up with me a few days ago, his tone was even more caustic than usual.

"You guys just don't get it, do you," he began by way of saying hello.

"What's on your mind, Joe?" I asked with a weary sigh.

"All this flak Clinton's been getting over the Marc Rich pardon. Everyone's missing the point."

"And what might that be?" I inquired.

"Bubba knew what he was doing," Joe asserted. "He wanted to provoke a controversy. The move was entirely calculated. In fact, I've come to the conclusion that the Rich pardon was an example of Slick Willie at his Machiavellian best."

I had to confess that I didn't have a clue as to what he was talking about.

"All right, let me connect the dots for you," said Cynic, his voice dripping with scorn. "The first stormy issue to come up for debate in the 107th Congress is almost certain to be campaign finance reform. Which means, in all likelihood, that this issue will be the first serious test of the Bush presidency.

"Now, how could there be a more notorious poster boy for campaign finance reform than Marc Rich? He represents the very worst in what's wrong with soft-money contributions and similar shenanigans. And if it hadn't been for the pardon, he wouldn't be in the public eye where he'll serve as a most inviting target for John McCain and his crusaders."

I had to agree with that as far as it went, but I felt compelled to point out that the Rich pardon also reflected badly on Clinton himself.

"Yes, of course it did," Joe replied. "But he can take the heat, as he has proven time and time again. Besides, it's not as though he has to worry about damaging his political future. He's already had his long reign on the mountaintop.

"And the reason he was willing to stick his neck out this way is because he knows that in the long run, strong legislation fr campaign finance reform will benefit Democrats far more than it will Republicans. That's why Republicans have been the only serious opponents of the McCain-Feingold bill."

My friend paused for a moment to indulge in a sly chuckle.

Then: "You have to know that Bubba was more than willing to take some hits in the short run for the exquisite pleasure of watching Mitch McConnell and the other hard-line advocates of soft money squirm as they try to defend a system that allows for a fat-cat contributor like Marc Rich and the apparent circumstances that led to his pardon.

"Oh, it was a brilliant ploy, both bold and adroit – vintage Clinton, if I may put it that way."

Our conversation then moved on to other subjects, one of which was Clinton's recent decision to focus on Harlem as the site for his post-presidential headquarters.

"Another master stroke!" Joe Cynic exclaimed. "Of course you must realize that he never intended to go through with the lease for the plush office space in midtown Manhattan.

"That was just a bit of mischief to shake up the Clinton haters, to provoke them into cries of outrage, breast-beating lamentations about his extravagance. Then, after he set them up, he whacked them with the Harlem counter-punch. Let's see them criticize that!"

Another pause, and this time the chuckle broadened into a deeply appreciative laugh.

"Oh, you have to hand it to him," said Joe. "The man is a cunning genius. I think we should start a movement to demand that he change his middle name from Jefferson to Devious."

All of this had been a lot to take in, and it wasn't until after I had regained my bearings that I raised the question: "Joe, are you all right? I'm worried about you. Have you stopped taking your medication?"

"Now don't go frettin' about me, you old goat," said Joe. "I'm just fine. And don't forget: I was the one who was right about Florida and was right about the sudden-death overtime lasting into December.

"Of course I did not anticipate that it would all be decided by a Supreme Court ruling to muzzle the legitimate recount. Even I can't claim to be that cynical."

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