By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Soon after Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, the former president and I had a brief telephone conversation. I had been downright heated about the pardon, a lot angrier than I had ever been about Monica Lewinsky. Clinton implied that I had things historically backward. Long after the Rich pardon had been forgotten, he said, the Lewinsky scandal would remain a vivid memory. That day is yet to come. The Rich pardon is back.
The vehicle for this lingering echo from 2001 is the choice of Eric Holder to be Barack Obama's attorney general. Holder was Clinton's deputy attorney general, and he played a significant role in the pardon. When asked by the White House what he thought about a pardon for Rich, Holder replied, "Neutral, leaning towards favorable." These four words have stalked him since.
Rich was a commodities trader who amassed both a fortune and some influential friends in the 1970s and '80s. Along with his partner, Pincus Green, he was indicted in 1983 on 65 counts of tax evasion and related matters. Before he could be prosecuted, however, he fled to Switzerland. There he remained, avoiding extradition and eventually arranging to be represented by Jack Quinn, a Washington lawyer and Clinton's onetime White House counsel -- in other words, a certified power broker. Quinn did an end run around the Justice Department's pardon office and went straight to Holder and the White House. With a stroke of a pen, justice was not done.
Holder was not just an integral part of the pardon process, he provided the White House with cover by offering his go-ahead recommendation. No alarm seemed to sound for him. Not only had strings been pulled, but it was rare to pardon a fugitive -- someone who had avoided possible conviction by avoiding the inconvenience of a trial. The U.S. attorney's office in New York -- which, Holder had told the White House, would oppose any pardon -- was kept ignorant of what was going on. Afterward, it was furious.
When I tell people that I am bothered by the choice of Holder for attorney general, they invariably say that everyone is entitled to a mistake. Yes, indeed. And I add for them that in almost every other way, Holder is a dream nominee. He has been U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, a judge and a well-regarded lawyer in private practice. Moreover, to my personal knowledge, he is charming and well liked by his subordinates. A better attorney general nominee you're not likely to find . . . the pardon excepted.
But the pardon cannot be excepted. It suggests that Holder, whatever his other qualifications, could not say no to power. The Rich pardon request had power written all over it -- the patronage of important Democratic fundraisers, for instance. Holder also said he was "really struck" by the backing of Rich by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the possibility of "foreign policy benefits that would be reaped by granting the pardon." This is an odd standard for American justice, but more than that, what was Holder thinking? That U.S.-Israeli relations would suffer? Holder does not sound naive. He sounds disingenuous.
Holder sounded just as disingenuous when he told a House committee that he did not "reflexively oppose" the pardon of a fugitive because "I had previously supported a successful pardon request for a fugitive, Preston King." King, a black civil rights activist, chose to be tried for draft evasion in 1961 rather than submit to what he considered racist treatment. After his conviction, he fled to Europe. The two cases are not in the least similar.
As noted, any person is entitled to make a mistake. But no one is entitled to be attorney general. That's a post that ought to be reserved for a lawyer who appreciates that while he reports to the president, he serves the people. This dual obligation was beyond the ken of George W. Bush's attorney general once removed, Alberto Gonzales, whose idea of telling truth to power came down to saying "Yes, sir. Yes, sir." On Guantanamo, domestic spying and Bush's "l'État c'est moi" view of the presidency, Gonzales was a cipher, and the damage of his tenure still needs to be repaired.
Holder was involved, passively or not, in just the sort of inside-the-Beltway influence peddling that Barack Obama was elected to end. He is not one of Obama's loathed lobbyists; he was merely their instrument -- a good man, certainly, who just as certainly did a bad thing. Maybe he deserves an administration job, just not the one he's getting.