Man of the World
On the first morning he woke up as a private citizen there was nobody around to serve breakfast to Bill Clinton. For eight years he and Hillary had lived in the White House, where staffers and servants rushed to meet every need; and for ten years before that, they had lived in the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion, where similar if not quite equal personal service had always been available at any hour.
It was Sunday, January 21, 2001—and that was all over now.
Both Clintons rose to face their new life somewhat exhausted from the long ordeal of Inauguration Day, which had begun in the White House greeting the new occupants, then continued through the ceremonial investiture of President George W. Bush amid snow and sleet, a protracted farewell with hundreds of friends and staffers at Andrews Air Force Base, and an unusually long journey from Washington to their new home.
Under the foreboding sky, a freezing downpour had grounded the Marine helicopter that was supposed to transport them from the capital, and had later slowed the usual hour’s drive from John F. Kennedy Airport to Chappaqua, roughly forty miles north of the city. There they had ended the day dining late at a local restaurant with daughter Chelsea, their close friends Terry McAuliffe and his wife Dorothy, and Douglas Band, a former deputy assistant to the president who had agreed to stay with Clinton into his post-presidency.
Nobody had known just how tired the former president was until he fell fast asleep in the Chevy Suburban that brought them all from Kennedy Airport to Westchester.
When the Clintons came downstairs on that first morning, the former president and first lady realized that not only was there nobody available to prepare breakfast for them, but that they had no idea how to make even a cup of coffee in their sparsely furnished and rarely oc
cupied new home. Neither did any of the others standing around in the kitchen with them. But everyone needed caffeine, badly.
“Let’s go get some coffee,” said Clinton.
The first executive decision of William Jefferson Clinton’s post-presidency was to venture into the snowy little town to visit the local delicatessen and bring back some coffee and sandwiches. Pulling on a bright yellow fleece sweatshirt over his T-shirt and jeans, Clinton joined Band in an armored Cadillac limousine, driven by a Secret Service agent, followed by another vehicle with four more agents.
Clinton noticed the first hint of trouble a few minutes later, when they arrived at Lange’s Little Shop and Delicatessen on King Street, the town’s main drag. The deli’s Sunday morning crowd of customers was friendly enough, with a few people shouting “Eight more years!” and “We love you, Bill!” But reporters were milling on the sidewalk, too. When they spied Clinton’s small entourage pulling up, a few began to bark questions. At first he could barely hear what they were saying.
“Why did you pardon Marc Rich?”
Alarmed, Doug Band leapt out of the back passenger seat and walked around to the other side of the car, where Clinton already had stepped out. He put an arm around Band’s shoulder and whispered softly but firmly: “I’ll give you five minutes to clear all this away.” He didn’t want the armored limousine and all the agents swarming around the closed street. He wanted to arrive in his new hometown more in the style of an ordinary citizen.
Minutes later, Clinton ventured into the crowded deli, where spontaneous applause lit his face with a smile. While Band placed their order, including an egg-salad sandwich for Clinton, he shook hands with his new neighbors, posed for cell phone snapshots, and signed autographs on scraps of paper.
There was no means of escape from the gang of perhaps a dozen or so reporters, which felt to Clinton and Band like a horde of hundreds who suddenly had total access to the former president. Nor did Clinton feel he could simply walk away without answering any of their questions—some friendly, some not so friendly. New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney, who had covered both Clintons for years, would later write that the president appeared “in a chatty mood,” relaxed and rested as he mingled with neighbors and reporters.
“So far it’
s been wonderful,” Clinton said of life after the presidency. On his first night in Chappaqua he had slept “like a rock,” he added—and no, he hadn’t bothered to read the Sunday papers or turn on the television yet.
With pleasantries out of the way, what ensued was an impromptu press conference. The journalists peppered a wholly unprepared ex-president with inquiries about the scores of pardons and commutations—totaling 177—he had signed during his last day in the White House. Mostly he responded to the questions in generalities, offering a promise to prepare a memo on the “pardon process” for his successor, and a short lecture on compassion toward former sinners.
“The word ‘pardon’ is somehow almost a misnomer,” said Clinton. “You’re not saying these people didn’t commit the offense. You’re saying they paid, they paid in full.” In fairness, he suggested, “we ought to be more open-minded” about individuals who have discharged their debt to society.
Perhaps those deserving of compassion included people like Susan McDougal, the Whitewater figure who had refused to implicate the Clintons in wrongdoing and spent miserable years in jail, or Henry Cisneros, the former housing secretary convicted of paying off a mistress with public funds, who had left office in disgrace. He had pardoned both of them. Arguably even a repentant narcotics smuggler who had done serious time might deserve consideration. That “paid in full” category, however, most assuredly did not include Rich, the “fugitive financier” holed up in a luxurious Swiss chateau while refusing to face multiple charges of tax fraud and violating the U.S. embargo against Iran.
Why would you pardon him?
“I spent a lot of time on that case. I think there are very good reasons for it,” Clinton replied, and referred further inquiries to Rich’s Washington attorney, Jack Quinn, who had formerly worked for him in the White House counsel’s office. Quinn could explain the legal theory behind the pardons of Rich and his business partner, Pincus Green, who had faced similar charges, fled to Switzerland with Rich, and received a pardon, too.
At last Clinton said he needed to go home, to continue the weekend’s work of unpacking with Hillary, who was thrilled to have a pri
vate home again and always loved to organize anything and everything. Sitting in the house were well over a hundred boxes of books alone. He needed time to get himself together, he chuckled, and get some more sleep.
But back on Old House Lane, reporters and TV crews would soon line up on the street, outside the tall white security fence surrounding the Clintons’ rambling Dutch colonial residence. Notoriously unfriendly to the press and sensing a media emergency, Band placed a call for help to Howard Wolfson—a tough and loyal pro who had handled press and communications for Hillary’s Senate campaign the year before. Wolfson dutifully drove up from the city and, before sundown, Clinton stepped into the chilly air outside for a photo opportunity and a few offhand remarks so that everyone else could finally could go home, too.
The newly sworn junior senator from New York stayed inside all day, wisely insulating herself from even the appearance of entanglement in her husband’s latest burgeoning crisis. That afternoon, a familiar atmosphere of tension loomed over the house, a feeling that things might be descending once again from bad into much, much worse.
The former president could be excused, perhaps, for mistakenly expecting his departure from Washington to be less dramatic and more cheerful. His approval ratings on leaving office were exceptionally high, matching or exceeding those of such titans as Ronald Reagan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the end of their presidencies. Although much of the valedictory discussion had lamented a presidency disrupted by scandal, his administration’s long list of accomplishments had not been ignored. Offering an editorial verdict on his “mixed legacy” and his failure to fulfill an innate potential for greatness, his frequent critics on the New York Times editorial page nevertheless conceded that he had established an impressive record of progress on the economy, the environment, social justice, equal rights—and acknowledged that his bold engagement with a changing world had enhanced American prestige as well as prosperity.
There had been lingering echoes of the Monica Lewinsky affair, in a last-minute legal settlement that Clinton and his lawyers had signed
with Robert Ray, the successor to independent counsel Kenneth Starr. After his impeachment acquittal in 1999, his most determined enemies in Congress had consoled each other with the promise that he would surely be criminally indicted upon leaving office.
But following weeks of negotiations with Clinton’s attorneys, Ray agreed not to indict him for perjuring himself before the grand jury investigating the Lewinsky matter, in exchange for his public acknowledgment of making false statements under oath, and acceptance of a five-year suspension of his license to practice law. And now even some of the right-wing Republicans who had voted to remove him expressed relief that the Clinton wars would finally reach an armistice as a new Republican president took office.
So Clinton had left town with the grumbling muted and the cheers of hundreds of admiring friends and staff still ringing in his ears. Here at least was an end to the constant partisan warfare and the opportunity to begin something very different.
Yet that respite was to be measured not in weeks or even days but in mere hours. Scarcely had his successor settled into the Oval Office for the new administration’s first day of work, when Clinton’s old enemies in the media and on Capitol Hill had returned to full uproar, over the Marc Rich pardon and a thousand other supposed offenses. However much they might sniff and snark about “Clinton fatigue,” they never really got tired of kicking him around. And as they quickly discovered, he was an easier, more vulnerable target now.
Unlike the battles of the past, Clinton could no longer turn to a devoted phalanx of presidential assistants, press flacks, personal aides, Democratic Party officials, and congressional allies to shield him. Now he was virtually alone, without protection, as an unrelenting barrage of assaults, insults, complaints, and threats suddenly poured in from every direction.
But a pair of loyal young aides would spend nearly every moment of the next ten years with him: Doug Band, who had earned a law degree from Georgetown while working in the White House and turned down an enticing job offer at Goldman Sachs to continue working for Clinton at Hillary’s fervent request, and Justin Cooper, a native of the Philadelphia suburbs who had worked in Oval Office operations after graduating from American University. Their role in shaping and protecting his
post-presidential life on many levels—from philanthropy and politics to press guidance—would too often be underestimated.
On Monday morning, January 22, Hillary Clinton left Chappaqua early to return to Washington with Dorothy McAuliffe. Chelsea and her boyfriend had gone, too—leaving Band; Cooper; Clinton’s military valet Oscar Flores, who had quit the White House to stay with him; the Clintons’ brown Labrador retriever, Buddy; and Terry McAuliffe, who understood that this would be a good day for a friend to stay by the former president’s side.
Plainly irritated by a crescendo of criticism focusing on the Rich pardon, Clinton was grim and angry. His mood didn’t improve that evening, when the network and cable news broadcasts all featured versions of the Rich story that emphasized improper or at least unorthodox procedures—and suspicions of bribery.
“Opponents of the pardon say they think contributions by Rich’s ex-wife, Denise, who has given nearly $1 million to Democratic causes during the Clinton era, were also a factor, though Rich’s lawyers deny that,” reported NBC News White House correspondent Pete Williams. “Lawyers involved in the case today say Clinton never contacted the Justice Department for its views on pardoning Rich. . . . [With] a presidential pardon, Marc Rich is free to come back to the US, no longer facing trial in one of the biggest tax fraud cases ever.”
Unpacking books and souvenirs didn’t seem to provide much distraction for the former president. As he watched an agitated Clinton stewing all day, McAuliffe decided to stay over in Chappaqua for another night. They stayed up late talking and trying to relax over a couple of beers. By the following morning, the rumblings of outrage over Marc Rich had erupted into a national uproar.
The lead editorial in the Washington Post demanded to know “what conceivable justification could there be for former President Clinton, on his last morning in office, to have pardoned fugitive financiers Marc Rich and Pincus Green? Unlike most of those pardoned on Mr. Clinton’s last day, Messrs. Rich and Green have never paid a fine, served a day in jail, disgorged a single dollar of allegedly ill-gotten gains or reimbursed US taxpayers the money that is allegedly owed.”
The pardons were not only “indefensible,” roared the Post, but had defined him and his presidency downward: “With his scandalous present to Mr. Rich, Mr. Clinton has diminished the integrity and grandeur of the pardon power just as surely as he diminished the various privileges he abused by invoking them to defend his tawdry conduct in office. What a way to leave.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer asked even more pointedly: “Did Mr. Rich’s pardon have anything to do with the hundreds of thousands of dollars that his ex-wife, songwriter Denise Rich, has given the Democrats? Or could it relate to Mr. Rich’s choice of Jack Quinn, a former White House counsel, as his lawyer? . . . This was simply a perversion of justice.”
And on ABC News, former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos had furiously denounced his old boss. “He pardoned a man named Marc Rich. You may not remember Marc Rich but he was a banker, a commodities trader, who was trading with Iran when they were holding terrorists and trading with South Africa under the apartheid regime. . . . Instead of facing trial he went on the lam, lived in Switzerland for seventeen years. His ex-wife has given $600,000 almost, over $500,000 to the Democratic Party over the last two years. This is outrageous!”
Many of the newspaper stories on the pardons quoted Rudolph Giuliani, the New York mayor and former federal prosecutor, who had originally indicted Rich and Green. On cable television and the networks, too, Giuliani was urging Congress to “investigate” Clinton’s pardons, insinuating corruption of the worst kind. The U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Mary Jo White, a Clinton appointee, had let the world know that she was equally furious because nobody had asked her about the Rich pardon before it was granted.
Later, McAuliffe would recall again and again how Clinton had looked during those two gray, awful days: “Just like a deer in the headlights.” As the Rich furor exploded around him, literally nobody was publicly uttering a word in his defense. Indeed, sometime on that Sunday afternoon, both he and McAuliffe noticed that none of the articles or broadcasts quoted Jack Quinn, who seemed to be hiding from the press. It was not long before McAuliffe, in anguish, picked up the telephone and called Quinn.
“Jack, the president is hanging out here,” he remembered muttering to Rich’s
lawyer, not wanting Clinton to overhear the conversation. “You did this to him, and you’re not saying anything to defend him. You did it, and he’s out here all alone.”
But Quinn was no longer the president’s lawyer, and apparently felt no responsibility to protect Clinton. With the possibility of a congressional investigation on the horizon, or worse, he was protecting himself.
“Well, Terry, my lawyers say I can’t talk,” he replied coolly.
“Your lawyers should just go fuck themselves, Jack.” The usually amiable McAuliffe’s voice was rising quickly. “This is your deal and you’ve got to get your ass out there and defend the president.”
That Tuesday evening, Clinton ventured out in public for the first time since his Sunday morning trip to the deli. He dragged a reluctant McAuliffe and Band with him to the Metropolitan Opera at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, where they were to attend a performance of Verdi’s Aida, starring Luciano Pavarotti, with Chelsea and her current beau, an Oberlin College music student and aspiring opera singer. It was a high-profile event, with the presidential party seated in the main box overlooking the stage for nearly five hours of heavily costumed singing—an endurance test for Clinton and his companions, none having even the slightest taste for opera, with other matters weighing on their minds.
What were they doing at the Met, McAuliffe asked himself, with a media firestorm developing around them? But it was Chelsea’s evening and he said nothing.
After the opera’s tragic finale—in which both hero and heroine are sealed up to perish together in an Egyptian tomb—the Clinton party made an obligatory visit backstage to meet the cast, shake hands, take pictures, and trade back-slapping jokes with Pavarotti. Though the great tenor was suffering from a severe cold, he seemed delighted to see the former president. Clinton smiled and laughed, too, still determined, as he had so often proved during the years of turmoil in the White House, to push trouble aside and live in the moment.
The long evening concluded with Clinton and McAuliffe driven back to Chappaqua, where they again sat up late drinking beer and fretting over the latest barrage of attacks. While they were out on what McAuliffe sarcastically described as a “double date” with Chelsea and
her boyfriend, a fresh cascade of damaging tales had gained traction in the national media. The pardon scandal seemed to be metastasizing.
On CNBC’s Hardball that night, host Chris Matthews—a strident and persistent Clinton critic—summed up the Rich pardon as a straightforward bribe. “This guy [Rich] took $50 million from the US government. He gets—his wife kicks in a million to the Democratic Party. The mathematics is perfect. It only costs a million to make up for $50 million.”
Then with a mixture of glee and disgust, Matthews and his guests delved into new accusations that Clinton staffers had vandalized or even “looted” the White House and Air Force One before departing on January 20—and that the Clintons had taken hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of artwork and furnishings from the executive mansion that didn’t really belong to them.
The initial stories about the items supposedly misappropriated by the Clintons were based on a mandatory, publicly available document that they had filed with the White House Gift Office before leaving: essentially, a long list with estimated dollar values of what were, at least in their view, personal gifts from friends.
Coverage of this mundane matter began innocently enough with a brief Inauguration Day story about the list in the New York Daily News, which noted that the Clintons had accepted roughly $200,000 in gifts—mostly household and decorative items given by various intimates and acquaintances, including two sofas, an easy chair, and an ottoman valued at $19,900 from a New York businessman; china worth $4,920 from director Steven Spielberg and his wife, Kate Capshaw; and nearly $5,000 worth of flatware from actors Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen. The official list released by the White House also disclosed receipt of a pair of coffee tables with chairs, estimated at more than $7,000—given by none other than Denise Rich.
Stories quoting anonymous sources swiftly followed, suggesting that Hillary had requested specific items she hoped friends would buy for her new Washington house in various stores, almost like a bridal shower or a wedding registry. Many of the same stories indicated that the Clintons had appropriated furniture, artworks, and other items that ought to have remained in the White House. Aside from soliciting expensive gifts from their rich friends, hardly proper conduct for an in
coming U.S. senator and her presidential spouse, both Clintons stood accused of absconding with White House furnishings that didn’t belong to them at all. In fact, Clinton had meticulously catalogued every item, including those for which he would have to pay.
Tabloids quoted former Reagan social secretary Sheila Tate—whose friends Ron and Nancy had accepted the gift of a two-million-dollar home—clucking in shocked disapproval. “Now we know why they had to have such a big house. . . . These are not the kind of gifts you take with you. It’s usually a silver bowl with your name on it.”
Daily News columnist Michael Kramer groused: “Most First Families view the gifts they get as the nation’s property—and leave town without them. . . . But the Clintons—naturally—are in a league of their own. They walked off with close to $200,000 in furniture, china, flatware, TVs, sculpture and assorted other ‘necessities.’ ’’
A week after the first gift story, the Daily News followed up with a story showing that there had been no registry-style Hillary Clinton gift list—but the rest of the media simply ignored that explanatory footnote. By then the press corps had moved on to the thrilling tales of vandalism, an irresistible metaphor for many of the capital’s loudest voices, figures such as Chris Matthews and Maureen Dowd, who felt that the Clintons had somehow escaped proper punishment for all the scandals and sins that the public seemed so determined to dismiss.
Here was evidence that the Clinton White House was nothing but a gang of hooligans that had seriously damaged White House offices and other public property to vent displeasure with the incoming Bush administration.
What had started as mildly amusing rumors about an alleged frat-boy prank—removing the letter “W,” a nickname and symbol of the new president, from White House typewriter and computer keyboards—quickly expanded into far more troubling tales. NBC News reported “phone lines cut, drawers filled with glue, door locks jimmied so that arriving Bush staff got locked inside their new offices, obscene messages left behind on copying machine paper,” and more, as well as “glasses and hand towels pilfered” from the presidential airplane.
An early version of these charges popped up on the Drudge Report, the notorious website whose status as a Washington tip-sheet (especially on Clinton) had continued to swell ever since proprietor Matt
Drudge broke the news of the Monica Lewinsky affair in February 1998. And they seemed to be emanating directly from the Bush White House staff, in particular the new press secretary, Ari Fleischer.
On January 24, Drudge quoted White House sources in an exclusive: “The Bush Administration has quietly launched an investigation into apparent acts of vandalism and destruction of federal property—after incoming Bush staffers discover widespread sabotage of White House office equipment and lewd messages left behind by previous tenants! Harriet Miers, 55, Assistant to President Bush and staff secretary, will be investigating possible legal ramifications of the White House trashing and possible theft, the DRUDGE REPORT has learned.”
According to a “well-placed source,” wrote Drudge, “Miers is just beginning her investigation,” adding, “The level of the trashing is very troubling, this is not just ‘W’ keys missing from keyboards.” He quoted a “close Bush adviser” claiming that the “damage left by departing Clintonites goes ‘way beyond pranks, to vandalism.’ ” Finally Drudge warned, “photographic and audio evidence is being collected—as the full scope of the damage becomes clear. Bush’s staff has been cautioned not to go public with the extent of the damage and the worst is being closely held among very top staffers for fear of leaks.”
That night the same stories came up on CNN’s Crossfire, with the Washington Post’s Mike Allen, a reliable sounding board of capital insiders, on set to discuss the missing “W”—a sign that the Clinton “scandals” were dominating Washington chatter and would spread rapidly through the national media. It was all erupting just in time to spoil Hillary Clinton’s first historic opportunity to preside over the Senate the next day, and it wasn’t about to subside anytime soon.
To Hillary, McAuliffe, Band, and others close to Clinton—not to mention the former president himself—it seemed obvious that the Bush White House was playing a very cynical double game. On the press podium in the briefing room, Fleischer pretended to downplay the “vandalism” story while keeping it alive; privately, White House aides were leaking ugly, unproven allegations about the trashing of the White House, the Old Executive Office Building next door, and the presidential airplane. Nearly every story on the subject featured a “close Bush adviser,” a “
high-level Bush staffer,” or some similarly unnamed source talking about the awful destruction perpetrated by those Clinton people.
To come under this kind of sustained attack by the White House was a signal of how far and how suddenly Clinton had fallen. Only days before, the vast communications operation of the presidency would have served and protected him. Now he could rely on nothing even resembling that mighty bureaucratic apparatus—only a tiny temporary office that sat, ironically enough, across the street from the White House in a townhouse on Jackson Place.
Directed by Karen Tramontano, who had served as a special assistant to the president, the Clinton “transition office” consisted mainly of a few aides on six-month stipends from the federal government. Still on hand was Betty Currie, who had famously endured crisis after crisis, and more than one grand jury appearance, as Clinton’s personal secretary, along with Laura Graham, who had worked on the White House scheduling team, Mary Morrison, who had helped to run Oval Office operations, and former White House social secretary Capricia Marshall, a Hillary confidante who served more as a consultant than a full-time employee—plus several employees who continued as they had before, handling correspondence from the tens of thousands of people on the Clintons’ various lists.
A highly competent executive originally recruited from a top position in the labor movement by White House chief of staff John Podesta, Tramontano had never overseen media relations, let alone a full-blown crisis. Receiving phone calls every few minutes from reporters who had managed to find her, demanding responses on the Rich pardon, vandalism in the White House, and Hillary’s gift registry, she lacked the skills and experience to respond effectively.
In the final weeks before the end of his presidency, Clinton had remained busy and preoccupied, with very little time devoted to what might come after. He and Podesta had hastily assembled the transition office, approaching Tramontano to run it less than a month before Clinton left the White House. They hadn’t anticipated the need for a press secretary—let alone a war room. Now Clinton sat isolated in Chappaqua, hundreds of miles from the transition office, and nobody there could begin to help him cope with a burgeoning public relations disaster.
Tramontano did what she could under the circumstances. She knew how to pick up the phone and reach officials in the White House, and within a day or so after the vandalism stories broke, she placed an irritated call to Andrew Card, Bush’s chief of staff. She had been in the White House during those final days; she knew that the trashing tales were wholly fabricated or at most terribly exaggerated. It was also obvious to her that whatever Fleischer might say, those stories emanated directly from the highest levels of Bush’s staff.
But rather than return her call, Card told his deputy Joseph Hagin to ring Tramontano back—and a “senior Bush official” instantly leaked word of the exchange to a CNN White House reporter. Then Fleischer described the conversation between Tramontano and Hagin to the White House press corps, complete with yet more insinuations of serious misconduct.
According to Fleischer, Hagin described “plural incidents” of vandalism to the Clinton aide, although he would not say what those incidents were. A “senior Bush aide” confirmed to CNN that the incidents had occurred mostly in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, but that some also took place in the West Wing. Yet while his colleagues kept whispering poison, Fleischer primly remarked that the White House had tried to minimize the entire flap from the beginning and “move forward.”
Through the final days of January, massive waves of negative coverage were washing over Clinton and his meager staff, leaving them virtually drowned and demoralized. Former Clinton press secretaries would clock in for temporary duty on what they all privately called “the shit-show,” but they had other commitments and were hardly in any position to push back effectively. When Jack Quinn finally appeared in the press to defend the Rich pardon on legal grounds—including an op-ed essay under his byline in the Washington Post—scarcely anyone noticed, and almost nobody cared.
What drew far more attention was the spectacle promised by the House Republicans who had seized upon the Rich case, apparently still eager to vindicate impeachment. Representative Dan Burton, chair of the House Government Reform Committee, announced on January 25
that he would soon open an investigation of the Rich case, because the former president “has not given an adequate explanation as to why Mr. Rich deserved a pardon.” Burton released a letter he had sent to the Justice Department seeking documents and promised to subpoena “a host of different groups that may have played some kind of a part in this pardon.”
Burton’s announcements excited the Washington press corps, many of whom had once ridiculed his committee’s clownish and ineffectual probes of Democratic fundraising and other alleged scandals. The Indiana Republican was probably best known for inviting reporters to his own backyard, where he had blasted a watermelon with a pistol to dramatize his suspicions about the death of Vincent Foster, the White House counsel whose 1993 suicide aroused right-wing conspiracy theorists.
Suddenly, Burton was a figure to reckon with again in Washington, where the network news and cable shows all wanted him to discuss the pardon investigation, and in certain circles he even became a potential hero. “I just wish one of these times you would catch them, Congressman,” cried Chris Matthews when he interviewed the eccentric Burton on Hardball. “You’ve been in pursuit. You’ve been like Smokey the Bear trying to catch this guy,” meaning Clinton, as if Burton were a dogged state trooper tirelessly hunting a career criminal.
Unwilling to cede the glaring scandal spotlight to the House, Senator Orrin Hatch, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, soon announced that he, too, would convene pardon hearings—evidently with the eager support of Senate Democrats, several of whom had publicly denounced Clinton’s pardon of Rich, including their leader, Senator Tom Daschle.
Among the most voluble grandstanders, rather predictably, was Senator Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat and longtime Clinton friend from Yale days, who had vaulted onto the Democratic presidential ticket in 2000 because of his moralistic scourging of Clinton during the impeachment crisis. Lieberman had even pushed himself forward to comment on the White House vandalism, while admitting that he had no idea what had actually happened.
But Lieberman’s irrepressible urge to promote himself was merely the least attractive expression of a basic Washington reality: Almost
every prominent Democrat felt obliged to express disappointment if not disgust over the Rich pardon. Those who had always disliked Clinton could barely conceal their satisfaction, while those who had been close sought a safe distance from him, sadly shaking their heads.
In those early days, Clinton rarely left the house in Chappaqua. When Hillary came up from Washington on weekends, she saw that he was “out of sorts” and angry, indeed often “madder than hell.” What made him especially furious were the stories about the furniture that he and Hillary had supposedly purloined, portraying him and his wife as some kind of low-class thieves.
Worried friends noticed that no matter how many times they urged him to turn off the TV and stop reading the newspapers, he couldn’t help himself. He would promise to stop, and then get on the phone with friends and ask whether they had seen the latest cable TV slurs against him.
“You’ve got to stop it!” McAuliffe told him. “Stop reading this stuff and stop watching this junk on TV! You’re going to drive yourself nuts.” But he couldn’t help himself. He watched constantly.
As January ended, a few small signs appeared of possible relief from the cable-driven scandal storm. After the Clintons voluntarily returned several items of furniture to the White House, the gift stories started to recede. The vandalism stories began evaporating, too, because Fleischer could never produce the “list” of damage incidents that he had said the Bush staffers were compiling; there was never a single photograph of any trashed office, or even a missing W. (Eventually Mark Lindsay, Clinton’s former assistant for management and administration, who had forcefully denied the vandalism charges at every step, would be vindicated by a General Accounting Office investigation that found no basis for them.)
Nor had the missing champagne glasses on Air Force One been stolen. A White House photographer, on board for Clinton’s final flight as president, had smashed them accidentally. When the steward came out of the galley carrying the glasses, the photographer had turned and, with her telephoto lens, hit and knocked over about ten of the tall flutes. Shards of glass falling into a celebratory cake had left it inedible.
But revulsion against the Rich pardon showed no sign of fading away—just the opposite. Both the Senate and House investigating committees were preparing to subpoena witnesses, including several top Clinton aides, Denise Rich, and the prosecutors who believed that Clinton had made a corrupt bargain to vacate their case against Rich. Worse still, rumors were circulating that the Justice Department, under a new Republican attorney general named John Ashcroft, who had voted to convict Clinton in the Senate, would open a criminal investigation of the pardon.
The prospect of a criminal investigation, with a grand jury calling witnesses under penalty of perjury, revived chilling memories of the very worst days of the Starr investigation. For anyone who had ever worked for Clinton, this was a nightmare déjà vu.
As for the Clintons themselves, the idea that they would again have to hire lawyers to defend themselves was utterly depressing. They were still deeply in debt to David Kendall and the other attorneys who had handled their defense in Whitewater and all the other fizzled scandals that Starr had investigated, plus the Lewinsky case, with unpaid bills that still totaled somewhere north of $11 million. To pay off that obligation, as Hillary told friends, her husband would have to earn at least $25 million before taxes. Now there would be more debt, not less.
While the roar of contemptuous media coverage, bipartisan congressional probes, and prosecutorial threats continued, Band and Tramontano had the satisfaction of knowing that at least a few important goals had been achieved. Most significant was the contract she had helped to negotiate with Don Walker, a prominent and highly respected booking agent whose agency would set up lucrative speaking engagements for the former president both in the United States and abroad. He paid a significant sum up front that helped the Clintons to retire their mortgage.
Walker had gotten off to a rapid and successful start, inking contracts for a heavy schedule of appearances, mostly at corporate events, that would pay no less than $100,000—and as much as $250,000—for what usually amounted to no more than a few hours of travel, talking, and face time. Having declined to join any corporate boards, as so many
of his predecessors had done, paid speeches and book deals looked to Clinton like his only hopes for erasing the burden of debt hanging over him and Hillary and paying for the costs of two big homes. He was working on a speech that would be worth the money.
Every week or so, Tramontano would come up from Washington for a meeting with Clinton. She would board an Amtrak train for the three-hour trip to New York’s Penn Station, then walk over to Grand Central Terminal and board a Metro-North commuter train for another hour’s to Chappaqua. This time, on the last day of January, she had news that she didn’t want to discuss over the telephone.
Tramontano called Oscar to make sure that nobody except for Band and Cooper was there. “How is he?” she asked. “Can I come up to see him?”
She wanted to tell Clinton in person what Walker had told her the day before. Almost all of the corporations, trade groups, and venues that had lined up to book Clinton speeches were withdrawing those commitments—with as many as five or six canceled in a single day.
“These bookings are just going away,” the gentle agent had told her sadly. “I’m not sure what to do, not sure what the president will want to do.” He paused. “I know this isn’t going to last. They’re going to come back.”
When Tramontano arrived at the house in Chappaqua, she hung around the kitchen until Clinton came downstairs. They sat down in the living room, making small talk at first. “Mr. President,” she finally said. “I just talked to Don Walker. He had thought most of these speeches would hold, that they would stay with us. But sir, they’re not.”
The next day, news broke of Clinton’s first scheduled speech at a Morgan Stanley bond sales conference in the posh Florida coastal enclave of Boca Raton, with a reported fee of $100,000, scheduled for February 5. That date had not been canceled, and Clinton looked forward to combining a lucrative speech with a short vacation at the Biltmore in Coral Gables, where he could escape New York’s freezing weather, play golf, and rest.
The bond traders and the Boca residents were friendly and welcoming. So were the Florida Democrats with whom he mingled at the Biltmore. The speech went well and his hosts thanked him warmly.
But even before Clinton spoke, the financial firm’s branch switch
boards across the country began lighting up with calls from furious clients, threatening to pull their money out. The protests grew so loud and angry that Morgan Stanley president Philip Purcell felt he had to do something to quell the growing panic in his company.
“I fully understand why you are upset that former President Clinton spoke at one of our conferences,” said Purcell in a message released three days later to all of the firm’s clients and the public. “We clearly made a mistake. . . . We should have thought twice before the speaking invitation was extended. Our failure to do so was particularly unfortunate in light of Mr. Clinton’s actions in leaving the White House.”
By the end of that week, almost every speech scheduled for Clinton in the United States was gone.