First lady's ethical problems

September 10, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- In the early days of that famous political partnership, Clinton Inc. -- William J. Clinton, president, Hillary Clinton, vice president -- the company slogan was "Two for the Price of One." Customers or voters were told, in effect, that if they bought one brilliant member of the partnership, they got the other one free.

But the exigencies of Mrs. Clinton's flirtation with a Senate bid in New York are putting a strain on the old slogan, in the case of her husband's offer of clemency to 16 members of a Puerto Rican terrorist group convicted in connection with numerous bombings.

Vice presidents, whether in the executive branch or in private corporations, aren't supposed to disagree publicly with their presidents. But, in this case, the vice president of Clinton Inc. decided to do just that after law enforcement officials and some major New York politicians in both parties squawked about the clemency offer.

Mrs. Clinton said the recent offer should be withdrawn because enough time had passed without the group members renouncing future acts of violence, a condition of the offer.

Before the White House deadline for acceptance passed, 12 of them grabbed it, leaving Mrs. Clinton in the position, in effect, of criticizing an action of her husband in what by that time had become a political football.

When Mr. Clinton first made the clemency offer, it immediately drew criticism as a bone tossed to Puerto Rican and other Hispanic voters, a significant voting bloc in New York City, to encourage their support of his wife as a prospective candidate for the U.S. Senate next year.

Among those who opposed the offer was -- no surprise -- Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the expected foe of Mrs. Clinton in the Senate race and a tough law-and-order politician. But the man Mrs. Clinton would replace in the Senate, Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, also called the clemency proposal "a mistake."

All the protestations in the world from the White House that the president's extension of clemency had nothing to do with his wife's exploration of a Senate candidacy did little to counter the contrary impression. Her public distancing of herself from him on his decision similarly gave the impression of running for political cover in the face of an action smacking too much of voter manipulation from on high.

The episode comes on the heels of public pressure on Mrs. Clinton from a pro-Israel group in New York seeking the release of a convicted Israeli spy, Jonathan Pollard. A New York Democratic Assemblyman, Dov Hikind, openly called on her to intercede with her husband to free Pollard, saying he hoped "she would get involved" and the Pollard case "would be resolved way before the [Senate] election."

With New York City a base for a wide range of political special interests and ethnicities, Mrs. Clinton as a candidate can expect to face more such pressures with her husband still in the White House.

Any efforts he might make to give her candidacy a helpful nudge are magnified by the unprecedented circumstance of a first lady seeking an elective office, and are open to allegations of unethical politics.

It would be one thing for Vice President Al Gore as a presidential candidate to get off the reservation (although he really hasn't yet) to put some distance between himself and the personally tarnished president under whom he serves. It's quite another for the president's wife to do so, especially after she has stood by her man under the most trying of personal situations for so long.

It is her fate that, after years of being advertised as Mr. Clinton's full political partner, staking positions of her own in contradiction with his policies will immediately invite accusations of political pragmatism.

After so many years as vice president of Clinton, Inc., it's a bit late for her to be taking issue with the boss on anything.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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