January 14, 2008 · Lessig
Senator Clinton was given a great opportunity Sunday to explain what she means by “change.” In an exchange on Meet the Press, she was asked about President Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich. Remember, Rich was the very rich man charged with tax evasion. Rather than fight the charge in court, he fled the jurisdiction. Not all his money fled, however, or at least lots came back — in contributions to the Democratic Party, for example. Hours before leaving office, President Bill Clinton pardoned him.
Here was the exchange:
MR. RUSSERT: You say you’ve been deeply involved in the eight years of the Clinton administration. One of the powers given to a president is the power of pardon. At the end of the president’s second term, he granted 140 pardons, including one to Marc Rich, someone who had been convicted of tax evasion, fraud and making illegal oil deals with Iran. Were you involved in that pardon?
SEN. CLINTON: No. I didn’t know anything about that.
MR. RUSSERT: No one talked to you whatsoever?
SEN. CLINTON: No. No. Unh-unh.
MR. RUSSERT: His ex-wife gave $109,000 to your campaign.
SEN. CLINTON: Well, no one talked to me about it, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: Nobody?
SEN. CLINTON: Nobody.
Later, Senator Clinton committed to following Justice Department “guidelines on pardons.”
So this is a fantastic area to focus on in defining how Washington would “change” under the new Clinton rather than the old. Indeed, as her husband’s administration was charged with essentially selling nights in the Lincoln Bedroom, and with this, selling pardons, it would have been a perfect opportunity for her to make clear just how different things would be.
In this question, she could have done that quite directly.
First, she could have taken the tough, though possibly right, path of speaking the truth despite how it is perceived. Certainly President Clinton thought there nothing wrong with the pardon. And indeed, when the Prime Minister of a major ally asks the President to pardon someone, especially one who has given so much money to one’s political allies, one could well argue that it takes real courage to actually grant the pardon, given the totally predictable charge that the pardon was bought.
Second, she could have taken the responsive, change signaling path of acknowledging a mistake and indicating how she would do it differently. Giving large donors special access and privilege in an administration is exactly the kind of behavior many say should change. Senator Clinton could easily have marked this as one of the things that would change.
She did neither. Instead, she deflected responsibility, pointed to the Internet, and promised to follow “guidelines.”
Not surprising. But not signaling, imho, “change.”