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How Can we miss you if you never go away?

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Smelly pardons, expensive gifts, deluxe offices--is this any way for a former President to behave?

When a president leaves office we expect him to disappear for a while, cede the stage to the new guy, give us some time to forget why we weren't so sorry to see him go. Jimmy Carter returned to Plains, Ga., to nurse his wounds and work on his house; George Herbert Walker Bush disappeared to Houston, content to load his dishwasher and walk his dogs. But from the hour Bill Clinton's successor was sworn in, the youngest former President in modern history made it clear that he didn't intend to fade from view for even a minute. "I'm still here," he declared as the jet engines revved at Andrews Air Force Base. "We're not going anywhere." The almost spoken promise: Clinton would dominate the power salons of New York City, bask in ovations on the lecture circuit, run the Democratic Party and lead the opposition in the national debate over George W. Bush's agenda. It would be a bold, triumphant new life.

Instead, Clinton's ex-presidency is shaping up to be a shriveled version of his presidency. As he copes with a new crop of scandals--the $190,000 worth of going-away gifts, the $800,000-a-year midtown-Manhattan office suite he wanted to rent, the 177 last-minute clemencies he granted and, above all, the one he handed to fugitive billionaire Marc Rich--Clinton's new life feels like the old one, minus the power and the pulpit and the retinue of aides. His war room is a half-furnished Dutch Colonial in the New York suburbs; his lieutenant, a former White House valet named Oscar who keeps Clinton supplied with diet Coke while the ex-President dials through the numbers he has entered on his new, imperfectly mastered PalmPilot, calling to justify himself to his friends. Clinton's red-faced rages over the Rich scandal have familiar themes: "setups," overzealous prosecutors, unfair legal cases that never should have gone to indictment. What is hard to figure out is whether he is playing out his reasons for pardoning a fugitive or working through his personal grudge against the legal system. Did he pardon Rich or himself by proxy? Either way, sighs a comrade who answered the phone recently to find the 42nd President of the U.S. on the other end of the line, "you get tired of listening to it."

A meteorologist might call Clinton's first month out of office a perfect storm: a freak convergence of fast-moving, late-season weather patterns, a lethal collision of the profound and the trivial. The thunderhead of accusations confirms every fair and unfair thing his enemies have ever said about him--and puts him once again in the sights of a federal prosecutor, this time U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White of New York. Not only are there calls to haul him before Congress, but also they are coming from fellow Democrats who defended him through every past scandal. This time, for the first time, he is out on the cliff, alone.

As Clinton's former Commerce Secretary denounces him and Morgan Stanley apologizes to its clients for paying him to speak, Clinton isn't the only one being damaged. His wife's Senate debut has been spoiled by the calls that are flooding her makeshift work space in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Hillary last week went to three Brooklyn churches to talk about racial profiling--and ended up answering questions about whether she had properly reported the glittery handbags she'd received (she had).

Where Democrats once expected Clinton to make the case against Bush's tax cuts, the former President's travails are instead drowning out their arguments. He's even dragging down Democratic fund raising, the one area in which he always came through. In Florida, where Democrats say they will need at least $12 million to defeat Governor Jeb Bush in 2002, a moneyman told TIME that normally dependable givers are citing Clinton's latest scandal, with its allegation that he traded pardons for campaign cash, when they refuse to put pen to check.

And so it wasn't entirely believable last week when President Bush declared it was time to "move on." The furor, says Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, is "a godsend for President Bush." Clinton is "making the honesty-and-integrity case for us," says a Bush aide. "We don't have to do anything." Clinton grouses in private that the Bush forces are quietly working to keep the controversies alive, but even he concedes that it's smart politics to do so.

In truth, the scandal doesn't need much of a push from Bush. What keeps the story going is the accumulated weight of embarrassments, the fact that they fit so many preconceptions about the Clintons and the diversion they offer the cable-news networks. It might not have bothered people so much had the hubbub stopped when a few broken glasses on Air Force One were exaggerated into an airborne bacchanal. Or when Hillary accepted an over-the-top book advance. Or when, in the well-established presidential tradition of hauling home favors from the party, the Clintons lifted a few that hadn't been intended for them.

The problem is the picture that forms when the dots get connected, with or without the evidence. The fracas over Clinton's $800,000 lease, which he at first offered to help pay, opened the question of where the money would come from, which led to his presidential-library foundation, which came back around to Rich's ex-wife Denise, who donated $450,000 to that library on top of the millions she had already given and raised for the Clintons and the Democrats. Not to mention that Rich's lawyer is Clinton's former White House counsel Jack Quinn.

What matters most is that in pardoning a fugitive tax cheater who flouted the U.S. judicial system for two decades and who got richer by trading with Iran, Clinton used an absolute power of the office in a way no President had before. U.S. history has seen its share of controversial presidential pardons: Andrew Johnson's of Jefferson Davis fueled his impeachment; Gerald Ford's of Richard Nixon helped cost him his re-election. But while Johnson and Ford paid a price in their time, history has also found larger purposes in those decisions. Even the elder Bush's Christmas 1992 pardon of Caspar Weinberger after the Iran-contra scandal--which had a self-serving element, since a trial might have focused new attention on Bush's role--found a larger rationale. Those earlier pardons "were attempts to put an escapade behind the country, to heal the wound, to bring the country together," says Chicago-Kent College of Law professor Harold Krent. "This is a controversy without a reason. That's what really differentiates it."

A pardon without a rationale has demanded too much of those who rallied so dependably for Clinton from Whitewater through Monica. And it has revived the question that has confounded the Clintons' friends all along: How could a couple so attuned to the most subtle political rhythms be so tone-deaf when the issue is their behavior? A great many former allies are sick of trying to figure that out.

"He's on his own," says a prominent House Democrat. "The only Clinton left now is Hillary, and she's the Senate's problem." The Clinton Administration diaspora has been nearly silent as well. "Total disgust," says a former Cabinet secretary, who has canvassed half a dozen others. "They want no part of it. They have had it--with both of them." Congressman Barney Frank, a Clinton stalwart throughout the impeachment scandal, told the Boston Herald the Rich pardon was "just abusive. There are people who forgot where the line was between public service and what was personally convenient for them."

While Clinton maintains he has no regrets for what he did, others have been compelled to say they are sorry for their contribution to the collateral damage: Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, for lobbying for Clinton's pardon of a Democratic donor's drug-dealer son; Morgan Stanley chairman Philip J. Purcell, for paying six figures to hear the inaugural address of Clinton's ex-presidency. (Clinton has told friends that Purcell didn't seem to object to the standing ovation Clinton got, or the fact that he shook hands with Morgan Stanley clients for two hours afterward.) UBS Warburg may not be the last to rescind its speaking invitation. Even Yale University, which has invited Clinton and current and former Presidents Bush to help commemorate its 300th anniversary this spring, is a little skittish. "We hope it blows over by then," says an organizer. "He is an alum, so there's not much we can do."

The only industry seeming to prosper under it all has been the publishing business. The Senate Ethics Committee last week approved Hillary's $8 million book deal; Bill is meeting with publishers to discuss his; and HarperCollins announced a new paperback edition of the 15-year-old, out-of-print Metal Men: How Marc Rich Defrauded the Country, Evaded the Law and Became the World's Most Sought-After Corporate Criminal. The pardon spree is also the first Clinton scandal to offer local angles to city editors across the country.

Clinton pleads bewilderment over it all. If he were trading pardons for money, he asks his friends, wouldn't he have helped out his DreamWorks buddies, who were pleading on behalf of jailed Native American activist Leonard Peltier? "David Geffen will barely talk to me!" he says. His clumsy reactions reveal how heavily he relied upon his palace guards. All that's left of the Clinton spin machine is a succession of temporary press secretaries and an ad hoc group of advisers. He is no longer able to change the subject with a merry economic report or poll-tested Executive Order or Middle East peace conference.

His political scaffolding isn't holding together any better. When Clinton vacated the Oval Office, he basically left as his forwarding address the Democratic National Committee. In his final weeks as President, he helped arrange for his good friend and chief fund raiser Terry McAuliffe to take over as party chairman; perhaps he wanted the vehicle to be well oiled and shiny should someone else in the family decide to take it out for a spin. But Democrats now fear McAuliffe could be sucked into the post-presidency scandal, given the role he has played in raising money for both Clintons and the $150 million presidential library, where the gifts are unrestricted and not subject to disclosure--at least until they were hit with a congressional subpoena. So party strategists are hedging their bets and looking for new spokesmen--Democrats in Congress, think tanks, labor unions, even Al Gore.

Clinton appeared to have lost his touch along with his job, but the one verity of his life is that he should never be counted out. His political instincts always seem to rescue him from his worst impulses, and for a moment last Tuesday, it looked as if the magic was back. The real problem with Clinton's New York City midtown office had been not its rent but the presumptions of privilege it implied. The champion of the little guy would be hanging with moguls like Barry Diller, trotting down to the Four Seasons for lunch. So Clinton announced he was heading up to West 125th Street in Harlem--a ploy so transparent it actually worked, bringing happy headlines to the tabloids and a cheering crowd onto Malcolm X Boulevard. It hardly mattered that Mayor Rudy Giuliani already had dibs on the office space (a temporary complication that a presidential advance team would have avoided) or that the inspiration to make the move came to Clinton while he was playing golf at a Florida country club that has been accused of discriminating against blacks and Jews.

There were signs too that Clinton's damage-control muscles were finally flexing. Thursday night, Geraldo Rivera reported an exclusive interview with a "frustrated, angry, but still defiant Bill Clinton." And by Friday, an op-ed piece was being drafted for the New York Times under Clinton's byline. In it, he would not come up with the apology some party elders had been begging for. However, he would accept full responsibility for the Rich pardon and frustratedly, angrily, defiantly assert it was one with which he was comfortable.

As he struggled to regain his footing, Clinton was even able to conscript a few ragged surrogates to put a noble if belated spin on the Rich pardon. Clinton did it, they said, to please Ehud Barak, as a gift to a man who risked so much for peace that he got kicked out of office. One problem with that explanation is that Israeli officials downplay Barak's role, saying it consisted of a brief mention during one phone call; sources close to Clinton contend there were at least three. Either way, the Rich effort paled beside Barak's unsuccessful effort on behalf of jailed Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. But in persuading Clinton, Rich attorney Quinn understood from his White House counsel days how impossible it would be to pardon Pollard and leaned heavily upon the idea of Rich as a consolation prize. The Rich pardon was sold as a sop to Israel that could slide under the radar in this country.

Harder to explain away was Senate testimony by Justice Department official Roger Adams suggesting that the White House had scrambled in the predawn hours of Inauguration Day to create a paper trail that made it appear that the Rich pardon had gone through normal channels. Adams suggested the White House even tried to slide it by Justice, portraying Rich as a jet setter "living abroad" and leaving out the detail that he was also a fugitive.

If there is any comfort for Democrats, it is in their experience that when it comes to Bill Clinton, Republicans have never failed to overbid a good hand. The first evidence that this could be a replay of scandals past came when Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter raised the possibility of a postseason impeachment trial. And Indiana Congressman Dan Burton's committee, already on its second round of subpoenas, is the same crowd that got nowhere on Whitewater, Filegate, Travelgate and a raft of other Clinton scandals over the years. More ominous for Clinton is the inquiry that U.S. Attorney White announced last week in New York. Absent an immunized witness or a wiretap, legal experts don't expect a bribery indictment. But if it could be proved that Rich, who claims foreign citizenship, gave his ex-wife the money she donated to Clinton, that could violate campaign-finance laws. At a minimum, a federal investigation could bedevil Clinton for months or even years to come.

In the meantime, everyday life is not without its diversions for the ex-President. He boasts that he has memorized his new ATM password and offered his card to Oscar to pay for supplies. He brandished his new American Express gold card at a now infamous dinner last month in New York City's Greenwich Village, where nearby patrons said they heard him chortling with former Senator Bob Kerrey over lesbian jokes. (Kerrey insisted on paying, another perk ex-Presidents get used to.)

Nor has anything he has done put Clinton in danger of ostracism in New York. He was never going to fit in with the city's blue bloods. A snooty Manhattan philanthropist suggested at a dinner party last week that it is the Clintons themselves who should be pardoned: "They are, after all, so unsophisticated. They are from Arkansas. They don't know about people who go to Switzerland." But the money-media-fashion-fame crowd that makes up Manhattan's most interesting social set--a highly mobile, mutually exploitative crowd for which it's better to be interesting than good--will welcome him regardless. Whatever else he may be, he's not boring. "Washington is pretty provincial," says Paul Wilmot, a fashion publicist whose firm handles Sean (Puffy) Combs' clothing line. "In New York, the most delicious thing on earth would be to sit next to President Clinton and ask him anything you want. There are going to be elbows and butts pushing their way over to him."

It's hard to figure out why Clinton couldn't simply embrace his new life from the outset. If being President is the most difficult job in the universe, being an ex-President must surely be the most sublime. The speaking fees and board appointments pay enough to finance homes in any vacation spot one might fancy. Everything one says is wise, and everything one writes goes straight to the best-seller list. Ex-Presidents do good works, make the occasional peacemaking mission, oversee the construction of a shrine for their White House relics. The biggest payoff of all as a former President transubstantiates from pol to statesman is seeing the traits that annoyed and enraged people while he was in office--Harry Truman's commonness, George Bush's blandness, Jimmy Carter's righteousness--come to be regarded as virtues. To be a successful ex-President, Bill Clinton must first find a way to let go of his presidency. Or, even harder, find a way to make it let go of him.

--With reporting by Ann Blackman, James Carney, Elaine Shannon and Michael Weisskopf/Washington and John Cloud and Amanda Ripley/New York

Chat with Andrew Goldstein about the Clinton exit scandals on America Online at 7 p.m. E.T. Wednesday. Keyword: Live


Cover Date: February 26, 2001



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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