by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
March 4, 2001
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The uproar over former President Bill Clinton's pardons has been certainly justified. In giving a free pass to fugitive financier Marc Rich as a favor to a wealthy donor to the Democratic Party, Clinton has shown us all how the power game works in Washington.
Bestowing favors upon the wealthy and well connected isn't exactly news. Do you think the donors who showered millions upon George W. Bush's presidential campaign did so because of their love of good government? Of course not. Quid pro quo has always been the guiding principle of politics. But watching the Republicans work themselves into a lather over Clinton's pardons reminds me of the relative silence over another set of controversial pardons made by an outgoing president.
On Christmas Eve 1992, President George H.W. Bush granted pardons to former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams and CIA men Dewey Claridge, Alan Fiers and Clair George. Their crime was lying to Congress about the Iran-Contra Affair.
For those who may have forgotten, here's the brief summary of what happened in Iran-Contra: In the mid-1980s, against the wishes of the U.S. Congress and the American people, our government - with the apparent knowledge and consent of President Reagan and most of the top echelon of his administration - secretly and illegally sold weapons to Iran and used the proceeds to fund a private army to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
After a Lebanese newspaper blew the whistle on the scheme in November 1986, the Reagan administration scrambled to cover their collective butts.
Lawrence Walsh was appointed in January 1987 as the independent counsel for the case. While Walsh supported the cause of the Contras and admired what he called the "patriotism and initiative" of Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, the alleged mastermind of the operation, he put aside his conservative ideals to objectively investigate what happened. What he discovered was, in his words, "a cover-up engineered in the White House of one President and completed by his successor [that] prevented the rule of law from being applied to the perpetrators of criminal activity of constitutional dimension."
Forces more powerful than Walsh thwarted his investigation at every turn. Walsh's two main convictions - North and former national Security advisor John Poindexter - were overturned by the courts. The other people involved that either entered guilty pleas or were convicted received light sentences. The bigger fish got away. Attorney General Edwin Meese (who engineered the cover-up), CIA director William Casey (who died and took his knowledge of the affair to the grave), Secretary of State George Shultz and President Reagan's Chief of Staff Donald Regan all escaped prosecution. And Reagan - who despite the lack of concrete evidence, probably knew what was going on - was too popular to face impeachment.
Walsh was still investigating Iran-Contra at the time of Bush's pardon. Pardoning Weinberger blocked his trial on the cover-up. The other five defendants also had incriminating information on Bush's involvement in Iran-Contra. With the pardons, the threat of criminal action against Bush was lifted.
As Bill Clinton was about to take office in 1993, the Democrats who controlled Congress were in a perfect position to get to the bottom of what went on during the Reagan-Bush years regarding their corrupt and highly dubious foreign policy. But they made a fatal mistake.
House Speaker Thomas Foley and House Foreign Affairs Chairman Lee Hamilton decided that challenging Bush on the pardons would distract from the domestic policy agenda that the Democrats hoped to enact in Clinton's first year in the White House. Foley, Hamilton and the rest of the Democratic leadership decided to end the investigation into Iran-Contra. Clinton and his staff also agreed that shutting down the probe was the best course of action.
Quite simply, Walsh was hung out to dry by the Democrats because they thought it was the politically expedient thing to do.
When Walsh left Washington in January 1994 - after the publication of his massive three-volume final report of his investigation - Walsh was a figure tepidly supported by his would-be allies, despised and undermined by the conservatives in Congress and mocked and scorned by the Washington media establishment.
What Walsh had done which was to lay bare the duplicity of the Reagan administration's foreign policy and tell the truth about the criminal acts being committed. It only works if both sides are agreeable to the terms.
After pulling the plug on Iran-Contra, the GOP succeeded in obstructing every bit of Clinton's legislative agenda, which set the stage for the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994.
Additionally, they used the bipartisan brush off of Walsh and his findings as proof that anyone who persisted in investigating the crimes of the Reagan-Bush era were loony lefties or wacko conspiracy theorists. And worst of all, they used the special prosecutor law that gave Walsh free rein to investigate Reagan and Bush as a weapon to bludgeon Clinton all through his presidency.
If the Democrats had the guts to pursue Reagan and Bush the elder as vigorously as the GOP is pursuing Clinton, who knows how the political history of the 1990s might have turned out? Instead, they took a dive and opened the door for the right-wing attack machine to savage Clinton for eight years and counting.
In 1993, the Democrats set the pattern of retreat that continues today. They failed to force an investigation into the many illegalities of the Florida vote that gave George W. Bush the presidency. They failed to put up a fight against John Ashcroft, Gail Norton and the rest of Bush the younger's odious cabinet picks. And they are about to roll over on the rest of Bush's dubious policies - the big tax cut for the rich, Star Wars, oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness, ending the separation of church and state - because they are completely void of any semblance of courage.
A seemingly innocuous concession today can turn into a devastating defeat down the road. The GOP knows this, and that's why they will pursue Bill Clinton and anyone associated with him until there is nothing but bones to pick over. Meanwhile, the Democrats will continue their bipartisanship until they are completely and utterly defeated because they haven't learned this lesson.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).