Shocked, Shocked

This Marc Rich story has legs and then some. Bill Clinton’s last-moment pardon of the indicted billionaire commodities trader has, like so many of the former president’s actions, created a cottage industry in sleazy revelation.

The scandals change, but their essential elements remain constant: the morally if not criminally questionable act, a media feeding frenzy, blood-lust among the president’s enemies and hand-wringing and some attrition among his friends.

The Rich case has the added twist of featuring more Jews than a Neil Simon stage memoir. Last week, Jewish groups lambasted their friend, the ex-president, for saying that in pardoning Rich he was in part following the advice of close friends in the Jewish community and Israel. The list of those who wrote letters or made phone calls on Rich’s behalf is long and varied: Ehud Barak, the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, Rabbi Irving Greenberg, and Israelis from left-wing Shulamit Aloni to right-wing Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert. One way of ensuring Jewish unity, Rich found, is to pay for it.

That brings us to the one other inevitable feature of a Clinton scandal: hypocrisy. In the Lewinsky debacle there were Clinton’s inquisitors, whose defiantly crossed arms obscured their own scarlet A’s. In the Rich mess, there are Jewish leaders who stood up for the billionaire after he had made substantial contributions to their causes. There is good to be found in almost every one, I suppose, especially when they make it worth your while.

On the other side are those Jewish leaders who are crying shame at Barak and Foxman and company. But had Rich dropped tens of thousands of dollars on their own organizations, would they have acted any differently? More to the point, would they have rejected Rich’s money up front as tainted, so as not even to place themselves in a moral tight spot to begin with?

For centuries Jews have practiced the art of whispering into the ear of the powerful, a necessary outgrowth of anti-Semitic policies that kept Jews themselves from holding positions of civil power. On Fri., March 9, we celebrate Purim, when the Jews Mordechai and Esther used their proximity to the throne to intervene on behalf of their oppressed and threatened brethren.

What Clinton did might qualify as sleazy, but he was president, and presidents get to pardon whom they want. If his enemies made half as big a deal out of George Bush’s pardon of Caspar Weinberger, their outrage now would be easier to take seriously.

As for our moral leaders who are shocked, shocked to find that some Jewish leaders gave a man the benefit of the doubt because he provided them money or other favors, they’ll have to convince us that they have always turned away a donor’s money if they suspected it was tainted.

If they have, I’d like to hear about it. Now that’s a story with legs.