The Final Days: The Last, Desperate Abuses of Power by the Clinton White House
Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2001
The Federalist Party is remembered, more than anything else, for its unseemly rush of last-minute appointments before Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801. Bill Clinton and his administration will be remembered for lots of things, but assuredly one of them will be the rush of pardons, commutations, agency regulations, expensive parties, solicitation of gifts, and plea-bargaining that marked Clinton's last month in office two centuries later.
Barbara Olson was a former federal prosecutor, legal analyst and counsel to a congressional committee - all of which she brought to bear to produce this hard-hitting, by no means neutral, report centered on the actions of those last few days. I say "centered on" because the book does not limit itself to those events but allows itself to recall a good many other abuses by Bill and Hillary Clinton over a span of several years, going back to their days in the Arkansas governor's office. The result is a brief book (240 pages) that, in addition to being a fascinating read and bringing together in one place the actions of the final days, serves as a useful compendium of the whole sordid history.
It is necessary to speak of Barbara Olson in the past tense. She was among those killed aboard the jet that was crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. The book had already gone to the printer, but the press-run had not yet been made. Regnery made the decision to go ahead with the publication, after its president says, somewhat inexplicably, there was some agonizing indecision about whether to proceed. The decision was a wise one, since the book is the testament that Barbara Olson would have wanted for what she stood for.
The book is a work of reportage, and it will remain for scholars to analyze what Clinton's behavior, and the American plurality's long condonation of it, means for the presidency, the nature of American democracy, and the cultural milieu of the late twentieth century. Those are subjects that deserve some profound reflection.
Clinton's last minute pardons and commutations came in two waves. The first was the "Christmas pardons" issued on December 22, 2000. Here, he granted clemency to 59 people, who included Dan Rostenkowski (former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who had pled guilty to mail fraud); Archie Schaeffer III ("chief spokesman for the Tyson corporation in Arkansas"); and Susan McDougal (involved in Whitewater). The emphasis in this wave was on clemency for several drug, tax evasion and fraud violators whose sentences were perceived as being unduly harsh.
The second wave came on the last day of Clinton's presidency. There were 140 pardons and 36 commutations, heavily weighted toward people who had used or distributed cocaine. Several were granted without having been put through the customary procedures. Even though the presidential power to pardon is unlimited, Olson explains that "under normal circumstances, the pardon process is highly regularized - to protect against corruption and improper influence." It involves the filing of a clemency petition with the Office of the Pardon Attorney, a process of screening and of possible consultation with other agencies and even with the victims, and the forwarding of a recommendation through the Office of White House Counsel. There are various Department of Justice regulations that apply unless overridden by the president, such as the rule that "a pardon will not be granted to a person who is on probation, parole, or supervised release." It is of some interest that Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist Paper No. 74, said that the pardon power had been made absolute precisely so that the president would be moved to approach it with "scrupulousness and caution. …