Helping a school chum who needed a pardon

Loyalty: Baltimore resident asks president a simple question to help a classmate and friend from Gilman.

March 03, 2001|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

What are friends for?

In Tommy Caplan's case, they're for asking questions. You'd do the same for your friends.

And if one of those friends happens to be John Fife Symington III, a man seeking a presidential pardon, and the other a man in a position to provide the pardon, that's the luck of the draw.

In any case, both Symington, a conservative Republican, and Bill Clinton, a pragmatic Democrat, should consider themselves lucky to count Baltimorean Caplan a loyal friend. When he gets together with chums from Gilman, where he met Symington, and Georgetown University, where he met Clinton, the chatter is about other friends, their children and the mundane matters of which long-term relationships are spun and cultivated.

When it comes to friends, Caplan's strictly nonpartisan. "I am not a politician," says Caplan, 54, a novelist born into the Baltimore-based Oscar Caplan family of jewelers.

He just happens to know a few politicians.

"I went to Gilman with Fife. Even then we were great friends," Caplan says. "He was editor of the Gilman News, and I was the features editor."

When Caplan matriculated at Georgetown in 1964, alphabetical fluke placed him on the same hallway as the man from Hope, the future president of the United States.

Symington attended Harvard, but the three occasionally found themselves together at parties or the beach. Symington and Clinton attended Caplan's 21st birthday celebration. And, there was "that famous swimming story," when Symington came to Clinton's aid when he was injured while swimming.

Caplan and Clinton have remained buddies through thick and thin and Monica. At times, the novelist even added rhetorical flourish to Clinton's speeches and traveled with him as a self-described "sidekick." In George magazine, the president attested, "He'd be my friend if I filed for bankruptcy and spent the rest of my life running a filling station."

Whether or not Clinton will ever have to don coveralls with "Bill" stitched across the pocket remains to be seen.

But before his conviction for bank fraud forced him out of the Arizona governor's office in 1997, Symington, a developer, did declare bankruptcy. Loyal friend Caplan didn't flinch.

The conviction was overturned by a federal appeals court in 1999. But the whole affair left Symington and his family in emotional tatters, Caplan says.

Symington and Clinton may have frolicked on the beach together, but politically, the two were worlds apart. Even so, in 1996, with controversy looming, Symington sympathized with the president and others also under legal scrutiny: "It's a terrible thing to go through. You just have to sit there, like the Clintons do in Washington, and half his Cabinet, and Newt Gingrich." In Washington, it seems, it's hard for anyone not to have a friend under investigation.

Anyway, Caplan believes it was just after last Thanksgiving when he and Symington were chatting on the phone. "He asked if I knew anything about this pardoning activity that traditionally occurs at the end of an administration. I hadn't heard a thing about it," but said he would inquire, Caplan says.

"Fife did not say, `Can you get me a pardon?'" he says emphatically.

Attending a White House Christmas party Dec. 19, Caplan approached the president for a moment, mentioning that, "Fife has expressed an interest in whether there will be any pardons and if so, how to seek one."

"All the president said to me was that he should apply," Caplan says.

There was no political intrigue, "no quid pro quo was sought, accepted or received," Caplan says. It was strictly "a matter of friendship."

He relayed the president's answer to Symington, who submitted a pardon application to Bruce R. Lindsey, former deputy White House counsel. Caplan then left a message with the White House secretary that Symington had applied. "I never spoke to anybody else about it again," Caplan says.

Later, he also filled out a character affidavit that had been forwarded to Symington's lawyer from the Justice Department's pardon attorney.

On Jan. 20, Symington was among 176 people granted pardons and commutations by President Clinton.

Caplan was happy for his friend. "He had a really anguishing time, and his family did for a long time," he says.

But he doesn't take credit for the pardon. Of his friendship with Clinton, Caplan says, "I have tried desperately hard to always bend over the other way and try not to take advantage and not to request things. Fife asked me a question and I found out the answer for him."

True, he had the unusual opportunity to ask the president in person how to launch the pardon process. "But every citizen can ask that," Caplan says.

Caplan's also not sure whether it's fair to say he was the "only catalyst" in Clinton's pardon of Symington: "You have to remember, the president also knows Fife, not just from our time in college. More importantly, they were governors together."

Lately, Caplan has been staying up late polishing his fourth book. In 1997, the publication of his third book, a suspense novel called "Grace and Favor," was feted by the likes of George Plimpton, George Stephanopoulos, James Fallows and other Washington luminaries.

But Caplan insists he's not really an inside-the-Beltway kind of guy.

"I write books. It's almost not an issue, being a friend of somebody. ... I write fiction. I'm not involved with it other than as a friend or as a writer."

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