March 5, 2001 Edition

Clinton Corruption Plays Us for Fools-We Won't Forget

Some day soon, public interest in the Clinton administration's final disgrace will fade, and the former President-if not his wife, our junior Senator-will retreat from the headlines. Then, after an appropriate interval, we will start seeing phony photo ops and pious public pronouncements. Here and there, the Clintons will begin their latest rehabilitation: Here is the junior Senator, hugging inner-city children; there is the former President, lecturing his successor on the finer points of statecraft.

Just as surely as Richard Nixon began planning his comeback on the airplane that took him to San Clemente on Aug. 9, 1974, the Clintons even now are preparing their future public-relations assault on the nation's better nature. They assume-regrettably, not without reason-that the American public in general, and New York voters in particular, will forget about the pardons and the denials and the bald-faced lies that have sickened even their most stalwart apologists.

They assume that disgust will run its course, that salvation will be found in short attention spans, that the hyperactivity of the media age will continue to blur collective memory. And if that doesn't work, well, they figure they can rely on this heavily Democratic state to swallow whole their claims to political victimhood. If public memory cannot be manipulated, there's always the crass pandering that has served them so well in the past: The former President will walk the length of 125th Street to remind his putative neighbors that he was, after all, the first black President; the junior Senator will hold news conferences to denounce right-wing conspirators. This combination of cold-blooded racial politics and partisan hatemongering, the Clintons no doubt believe, will keep New York pliant. And New York is the key to it all: Without New York, there is no Senate seat, there is no imperial post-Presidency, there is no access to the courtiers who can, with words, actions and money, douse the dealings of grifters with the perfume of public service.

So the Clintons are playing New Yorkers for fools. Although they surely know by now that their actions and their words have offended even their own supporters in the state they laughingly call home, they see no reason to panic. Mrs. Clinton is in the first weeks of a six-year term of office; in 2006, they believe, who in New York will remember Marc Rich or Hugh Rodham? Who will remember the White House furniture that found its way to their living room in Chappaqua?

And so it will be up to New York, finally, to foil the calculations of this coarse and manipulative couple. New Yorkers now have an obligation, not only to themselves but to the nation: They must remember. They must remember exactly how they feel about the Clintons at this moment, exactly how they felt when their junior Senator claimed she didn't know that her own brother was bidding for pardons from her husband. They must remember how their stomachs turned when their junior Senator professed to be "heartbroken" about her brother's rancid involvement in the great pardon auction. They must remember their astonishment when Mrs. Clinton claimed to know nothing about the Rich pardon, even though his ex-wife Denise donated more than $100,000 to the former First Lady's Senate campaign-not to mention the $1.1 million that Ms. Rich has given the national Democratic Party, and the $450,000 she gave to the Clinton Presidential Library.

Mrs. Clinton is heartbroken? She's always either heartbroken or disappointed. What about her constituents? Doesn't she feel our shame? After all, her husband felt our pain. Does she not understand our embarrassment? With the nation and indeed the world watching, we entrusted her with the U.S. Senate seat once held by Robert F. Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. It is clear now that we have made a terrible mistake, for Hillary Rodham Clinton is unfit for elective office. Had she any shame, she would resign. If federal officeholders were subject to popular recall, she'd be thrown out of office by springtime, the season of renewal.

Only two months ago, serious people believed that Mrs. Clinton would be a candidate for President in 2004. Even true believers-gathered in Manhattan's few remaining telephone booths-must admit that the plan to get Mrs. Clinton back into the White House must now be relegated to history's dustbin, where it will share space with the proceedings of the ClintonCare commission, canceled checks to the Whitewater Development Corporation and the billing records of the Rose Law Firm. Mrs. Clinton's political viability has come to an end after fewer than eight weeks in office.

Unlike the tawdry dealings that led to Bill Clinton's impeachment, the pardon scandal implicates Mrs. Clinton as much as, and perhaps even more than, her husband. After all, it was her brother, not his, who accepted $400,000 to lobby for pardons for a drug kingpin and a swindler. (Hugh Rodham says he'll give the money back-although he hasn't done it just yet. Even if he does, the restitution won't make everything right. Just ask a bank robber.) The Hasidic village in upstate New Square voted en masse for her, not him, last fall, after she met with the village's religious leader. The pardons for four felons from the village who bilked the federal government out of $40 million raise questions about her campaign, not his. It was her campaign treasurer, not his, who helped and advised two of those felons with their pardon applications.

Mrs. Clinton's press conference on Feb. 22 was a masterpiece of evasion-so much so that she deserves a new (if you'll forgive us) moniker: "Slick Hillie." She said she knew nothing about the pardons. She said she knew nothing of her brother's involvement. No, no-she didn't concern herself with these little matters, because she was very busy preparing to represent the people of New York. If we had any questions about the pardons, she said, we ought to ask him, the "him" in question being her husband.

A move worthy of the Big He himself.

The Clintons have spent the last eight years treating the American electorate with dismissive contempt. The rage unleashed in the last few weeks is that of an aggrieved partner who has wised up at last. The President's supporters in politics and the press understood all along that they were in a high-risk relationship, but they had persuaded themselves that, in his heart, Mr. Clinton loved what they loved. Their devotion only deepened when they were warned to be wary of him; his enemies were their enemies, too.

Now, with Mr. Clinton stripped of the power and protection of the Presidency, his supporters see him exactly as he is. And the image that presents itself is terrifyingly close to the caricature his enemies drew of him. They were right, after all. Mr. Clinton was, in fact, an untrustworthy low-life who used people for his own purposes and then discarded them. How could they have been fooled so badly?

Even now, some continue to delude themselves. They attack Mr. Clinton's actions, but they can't bring themselves to admit that Senator Hillary also is at fault. Most of us, however, now realize that she is an equally detestable partner in a scandal whose sleazy dealings finally have been brought to light.

Conservative critics of the Clintons have been amused to see the former President's friends writhing in agony on talk shows and in op-ed columns in recent weeks. They wonder why other Democrats and liberal commentators are so angry. It's not as though the Clintons have suddenly become something they're not; they've been selling their principles to the highest bidder for years. It's not as though they've betrayed their core values; what core values did they ever have?

What the critics-understandably satisfied to see their judgment confirmed yet again-miss is the amount of self-loathing in the Clinton pile-on. Pro-Clinton commentators and colleagues now realize just how much they compromised, just how much they excused, just how ridiculous they looked in their defense of this corrupt couple. The end of the Clinton Presidency and the beginning of another Bush era has inspired a round of reflection, and Clinton supporters find they can't look at themselves in the mirror.

They are ashamed of themselves, which is a good deal more than anybody can say of the Clintons. Indeed, they remain smug and self-righteous, certain that New York will forget the early weeks of 2001, certain that New York will embrace its junior Senator once again.

They have fooled the public before. They believe they can do so again.

Let's hope that this time, they are wrong