Richard Reeves

President for Sale or Rent

NEW YORK -- Once again, by pardoning the fugitive financier Marc Rich, Bill Clinton gave all Americans a clear choice in understanding and evaluating his character.

If you dislike Clinton, you can say he's for sale.

If you like Clinton, you can say he's just a politician, and all American politicians are for sale.

I am biased in the matter of Mister Rich. It is not so much because my government said he was a thief and that part of his thievery was making oil deals with Iran while American hostages were being held there. And it is not so much that he was a fugitive, suffering in the wilds of Switzerland, trying to buy his way back to the United States without answering the Justice Department's 51-count indictment for trading with the enemy and such.

Hey, innocent until proven guilty, I say. All of us have a right to a day in court and the best defense we can afford. It's possible that Rich, who fled more than 17 years ago, was planning to come back and prove his innocence.

No, my bias is personal. I live in the same neighborhood Rich's wife (now ex-wife) has lived all these years, in which she has given the Democratic Party, President Clinton, Vice President Gore and Senator Clinton more than $1.3 million and raised more from friends. It has been terribly inconvenient to have the street blocked off while my leaders courted her and, in absentia, her husband (now ex-husband) during the fund-raising dinners she has given for the past six years.

I also thought it was a bit degrading to have to stand at the corner, behind police barricades, thinking that in there, in the Rich house, the good name and possibly the treasure of my country were being sold off to high bidders.

"To my knowledge, this was straightforward," said one of Rich's lawyers, Robert Fink. "I'm unaware of any politics."

Right. I suppose that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Zubin Mehta, the director of the Israel Symphony, a recipient of Rich's fabled generosity, who both called President Clinton on Rich's behalf, were offering their legal advice. In fact, their advice was so good the president did not even have to inform the Justice Department, or its office of pardons, or the prosecutors who handled the case, before he sneaked through the magic paper on his last day in office. Or maybe he did not need to talk to Justice because of the great advice he was getting from his former counselor and Vice President Gore's chief of staff, Jack Quinn, who was on the Rich payroll.

Or maybe what tipped the balance was the passionate letter written by the once and former Mrs. Rich, saying that the father of her children had suffered enough in his 17 years of voluntary exile. I'm sure the money she was giving the party and the Clinton family had nothing to do with all this. After all, when Mrs. Rich was asked whether she had given Senator Clinton furniture for her new manor houses, she answered no, only some jewelry. (Actually, there was some furniture, too, a coffee table and a couple of chairs valued at $7,375.)

So it goes; that is our system. It's not money they're giving politicians, it's free speech -- or so the Supreme Court keeps telling us. Maybe the courts are behind the times. Law enforcement certainly is. Interagency International Fugitive Lookout still lists Marc Rich as:

"WANTED by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Customs Service and the U.S. Marshal Service."

The entry reads:

"In April 1980, Marc David Rich conspired with the Iranian government to purchase over 6 million barrels of oil, in violation of the trade embargo imposed against Iran by the United States. The payments were made fraudulently through American banks. On Sept. 19, 1983, Rich was indicted by a U.S. federal grand jury on more than 50 counts of wire fraud, racketeering, trading with the enemy and evading more than $48 million in income taxes.

"The U.S. will pay a reward for information that leads to the arrest of Marc David Rich."

Wait. There's an idea. Maybe now that he's a private citizen, Bill Clinton can claim the reward.

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