Clinton lives to the beat of Presley

Pardons: Former president doesn't mind criticism but don't step on his blue suede shoes.

March 04, 2001|By Lisa Anderson

NEW YORK - A remarkable rise from Southern poor boy to president to reluctant retiree. A slew of shifty, shiftless siblings. Marital woes. Murky money. Strange company. Unbridled cupidity for everything from illicit sex to Spode china. And generally, a whole lot of lying and cheating going on.

In a bit more than a month, the Clinton-Rodham clan of Arkansas-Washington-New York has managed to embrace all of these embarrassing elements, emerging as perhaps the most spectacularly dissolute and dysfunctional family since William Faulkner introduced the fictional and feral family Snopes of Yoknapatawpha County, Miss., some 40 years ago.

Many presidents have granted pardons. Many have taken gifts and mementos from the White House. Many have established post-presidency offices and libraries. But none ever has done it as controversially and splashily as William Jefferson Clinton, bumping the new president off the top of the news, tarnishing his wife's debut as a U.S. senator from New York, virtually abdicating as the leader of his own floundering Democratic Party and prompting Americans to wonder if all this will ever end.

"I think we have to get over the fact that Clinton exited the White House, but he did not exit the center stage of American political and cultural life," said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at the University of New Orleans. "Even when he dies, we better make sure the coffin's nailed shut. We'll have surprises, even after his death. We'll find out he had diaries, a secret money account, a mistress in Tahiti. The lasting appeal of Bill Clinton is that he's kind of an amiable rake with the morals of a snake."

How can one of the most brilliant politicians of his generation, noted for his acumen and ostensibly concerned about his legacy, continue to make so many blunders?

"Look at Elvis Presley," said Brinkley. "How did Elvis make so many bad records? That's Bill Clinton's hero. They come from the same Delta region. He studied Elvis as assiduously as Ronald Reagan studied John Wayne movies."

Since the wee hours of Jan. 20 - during which a weary, soon-to-be-former President Clinton spent his final White House moments in a manic marathon of packing, pilfering and pardoning - the Clintons, assisted by assorted relatives and friends, have set a land-speed record for the most scandalous headlines by a departing First Family.

The list is long and growing longer daily:

* The 176 last-minute pardons and commutations of sentence, in many cases granted by Clinton with little or no input from the Justice Department but plenty of input from close relatives, including his half-brother Roger Clinton and brother-in-law Hugh Rodham, former White House aides and big Democratic donors.

* The $190,000 worth of going-away gifts, ranging from a $3,650 rattan kitchenette set to a $2,340 Spode soup tureen, that the Clintons hastily solicited, accepted and shoveled out of the White House before Hillary's congressional ethics agreement deadline, behavior seemingly less like the script of "The West Wing," than the old TV shop-a-thon "Supermarket Sweep."

* The controversial $800,000 annual lease on a posh midtown office suite above Carnegie Hall abruptly traded for more modest offices on Harlem's 125th Street. The new space, at half the price, was his first choice anyway, Clinton told a cheering Harlem crowd.

* The golf game at a Florida club that allegedly bars blacks and Jews.

* The $100,000 speaking fee paid by investment firm Morgan Stanley, a move that so outraged some customers that the company issued an apology.

* The January dinner in Greenwich Village during which he and former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey reportedly were overheard trading lesbian jokes.

* The sudden lack of support, or outright defection, of even the most committed Clintonistas, and a Democratic Party finally exhausted by Clinton's seemingly inexhaustible hubris.

* The ever-growing congressional investigation of Clinton's pardons.

* And the criminal inquiry by U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White into whether pardons were for sale. That inquiry, already involving Hugh Rodham, expanded on Friday to ascertain whether Roger Clinton had sought payment for unsuccessfully lobbying his brother for clemency for as many as 10 people.

"A Clintonian exit, the perfect bookend to his presidency," said a wry Fred Greenstein, author of "The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton," and a political scientist at Princeton University.

Not just about sex

"The argument about Clinton always has been that it was only about sex," said Stanley Renshon, a psychoanalyst and political scientist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "But people who have looked at Clinton closely have been saying for some time that it's not about sex, it's about the abuse of the prerogatives and discretion of the office. Here, we see in sharp relief the fact that that is true. You can't avoid it.

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