The Magazine

The Unpardonable Pardon

Everything rotten in the Clinton presidency came together in the Marc Rich case

Feb 5, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 20 • By JAMES HIGGINS
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LATE-NIGHT COMEDIANS have done much to persuade Americans that Bill Clinton's finger-wagging "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" denial was the action that captured the essence of his presidency. But it wasn't.

Hearing the name Al Capone, we don't think of the gangster hunched over a desk, smirking as he signs a false income tax return, though it was income tax evasion that was Capone's downfall. The Lewinsky case, similarly, is just what Clinton was caught at.

But the moral rot was much more profound, as became clear even to the president's defenders with his last minute pardon of Marc Rich. Clinton, the master political tactician of our time, saved for last the one action that weaves together every major variation on the sociopathic fugue that was Clintonism: Big dollars for Democrat coffers. Tolerance of treason. An attractive divorcee making repeated visits to the White House. Betrayal of unmoneyed political allies of principle in favor of moneyed allies of convenience. Presidential actions so far outside the bounds of decency that no observer and no other president could even have conceived of them in advance. Presidential embrace of characters previous presidents would have dealt with using the FBI or the military. And all of this covered by lies, small and large. That's a lot of variations, but Clinton managed to find a way to capture all of them just by signing his name to the Rich pardon.

By now the basics of the Marc Rich case have become well known: He carried out the largest income tax evasion in U.S. history; he did business with the Ayatollah Khomeini in violation of the Trading With the Enemy Act while the staff of the U.S. Embassy were being held hostage in Iran; he and also-pardoned associate "Pinky" Green, facing indictment, fled the United States in 1983 and never returned. And, to the fury of the law enforcement community, the unrepentant fugitive has now won a pardon without serving a day in jail or even standing trial.

Oversized descriptions seem to fit Rich. His biographer A. Craig Copetas called him "the most wanted white-collar criminal in America" and quoted unnamed Justice Department officials shortly after Rich's abrupt departure for Switzerland as deeming him "the most corrupt corporate executive in America."

Why would Clinton have pardoned such a man? The most obvious explanation is that Rich's ex-wife Denise has become a major donor and fund-raiser for the Clintons. And it's true that she visited Clinton at the White House many times. One can easily picture Denise Rich, along with a number of last-minute pardonees and their friends and family, playing an important role in funding Hillary Clinton's future political career. But if Bill Clinton simply wanted to recruit a Grateful Felons Finance Committee for Hillary, he could have done so right here in the good old U.S.A. He needn't have gone as far as Zug, Switzerland, with a pardon he must have known would enrage law enforcement officials. It's the antagonism, even malevolence, toward the justice system that makes Clinton's parting shot seem so pathological.

Betrayal of unmoneyed political allies has been another theme of Clintonism, a theme that recurs in the Rich pardon. Media coverage has focused on Rich's business activities in Switzerland and Iran. But those aren't the only places Rich made the several billion coins in his piggy bank.

Rich's stock in trade is reported to be false documents, usually to disguise the origin, path, or destination of a commodity, usually in order to evade a tax or prohibition. In the 1980s the commodity was oil, and the customer was apartheid South Africa, then under U.N. trade sanctions. Rich has been described in the South African press as "the most prolific buster of the oil embargo." Pardoning the man who kept apartheid's engines running was Bill Clinton's thanks to his most loyal supporters, the African-American community in the United States.

Rich's unsavory associations don't stop with South Africa. His name turns up in a 1992 report by senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Hank Brown (R-CO) to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about BCCI, once the global one-stop banking supermarket for arms traffickers, drug dealers, and money launderers. After describing a complex series of transactions between BCCI and Rich, the report concludes, "The nature and extent of Rich's relationship with BCCI requires further investigation." The next year Bill Clinton came to the White House, and the "further investigation" seems never to have happened.