By Noemie Emery, a writer on American politics and history.
The Final Days: A Behind the Scenes Look at the Last, Desperate Abuses of Power by the Clinton White House, by Barbara Olson (Regnery, 258 pp., $27.95).
he 1990s, as a political era, began on September 10, 1991, with the hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas, and ended abruptly ten years and one day later, with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. A key figure in both of these events was Barbara Olson, who rose to prominence during the Thomas hearings, and died in the crash of Flight 77 into the Pentagon. Along the way, she became a pundit superstar, with a near-permanent seat on the Larry King program, fighting the culture wars on a wide range of fronts, from gender issues to impeachment struggles. To some, she was the anti-Hillary: a feisty blonde lawyer in a high-profile marriage (to prominent lawyer, and now solicitor general, Ted Olson), but one who was honest and funny. Her first book was the bestselling Hell to Pay, a precise portrait of the unlovable Hillary Clinton herself. Her final book is The Final Days, a short, crisp, lethal summation of the events of January 2001, as the Clintons prepared to vacate the White House, and finally did so, taking much of the furniture with them. Who can forget those halcyon days of greed, pardons, and general thuggery? Few will as long as this book is around.
The Clintons' last month in the White House shocked the country, and helped get the contested presidency of George W. Bush off to its unexpected good start. Even some Clinton supporters were stunned, for the first time, into condemning the couple. Olson, however, sees nothing surprising in the Clintons' final days; they differed in degree, not in kind, from the preceding years of skulduggery.
The scope of the Clintons' offenses was vast, but easily divisible into two major categories: greed and abuses of power. Under greed, we can put down Hillary's book deal, the grand theft of the White House furniture, and the ornate His and Hers office spaces in New York. As for the book deal, the freshman senator made off with the third-highest advance in history. (The two higher went to the Pope and her husband. "The Pope, of course, was older, and had a few more accomplishments," Olson tells us. "But then, the Pope has never been before a grand jury.") Some were churlish enough to suggest that the book deal looked like a payoff, as her publisher was part of a vast conglomerate that owned television stations and a film studio, and had a huge stake in regulations on which the Senate was voting; but few were boorish enough to push the matter too far.
Despite the book-deal windfall, Hillary — with two immense houses to furnish — set out, while still First Lady, to shake down her friends. Olson writes that "friends of Mrs. Clinton solicited others, saying 'Would you please buy this silverware, these gifts . . . ?'" And yes, they would, to the tune of $190,000 in gifts — for a woman who had just signed an $8 million book deal, and whose husband stood to make $100,000 a speech.
And this was on top of what the Clintons had managed to take out of the White House itself. "In January 2000," writes Olson, "the Clintons began shipping furniture to their $1.7 million Chappaqua home, despite concerns raised by White House chief usher Gary Walters about whether they were entitled to remove the items. Walters rightly believed they were government property, donated as part of a $396,000 White House redecoration project in 1993." Then there were the offices: Hillary's will cost taxpayers more than twice as much as Senator Charles Schumer's; Bill's first choice, in midtown's posh Carnegie Hall Tower, would have cost taxpayers more than the office tab for all other living ex-presidents combined; and even the Harlem office he was forced to settle for is more expensive than that of any other ex-president.
Let us turn now to abuses of power. As Olson notes, Clinton had always been fond of executive orders, and, as his remaining days in office dwindled, his fondness only increased. "No debate, no hearings, no cumbersome votes . . . Clinton loved the feel of this kind of power, and [his] last three weeks in office turned into a gusher of executive orders and presidential decrees." In his final days, Clinton appropriated millions of acres for the federal government, signed a great many dubious treaties, and laid on a blizzard of new regulations that could — and did, until recent events made them irrelevant — tie his successor in knots.
Most flagrant of all were the pardons. On his final day, Clinton commuted the sentences of Susan Rosenberg and Linda Sue Evans, who were associated with the murder of policemen in a 1981 armored-car robbery (and also with the bombing of the U.S. Capitol in 1983). Also released was cocaine dealer Carlos Vignali, son of a high-rolling donor to Democrats; Hillary's brother charged $200,000 for his help in pressing the case. The most noxious example of mercy-for-money was Marc Rich, a notorious fugitive whose ex-wife had showered the Clintons with cash. On his last day as president, Olson writes, Clinton "issued a torrent of 140 pardons and 36 commutations." One TV commentator observed: "Not since the opening of the gates of the Bastille have so many criminals been liberated on a single day."
All of the flaws the Clintons had ever displayed swelled into one obscene bubble. Olson summarizes: "Bill and Hillary Clinton ended their eight years in the White House with a grand-finale pyrotechnic show of historic proportions, [reprising] the lowlights of their two terms in office by taking public property, soliciting gifts and favors, selling the powers of the presidency to friends, cronies, [and] family members."
It is impossible, of course, to read this book now except through the lens of September 11, with some passages having new meaning. It is, for example, impossible to read a line like "Soviet aggression had been replaced by a number of particularly venomous threats, from Timothy McVeigh to Osama bin Laden," without shivering. Our view of Bill Clinton has also changed. The relatively generous assessment that Olson accords him — of having, at least, reigned over a period of peace and tranquility — must also look rather different, because we now know that the murderous attacks were even then being prepared. The terrorists believed that they would pay almost no price for their actions, unless they coincided with an impending impeachment, or the discovery of semen on the dress of the president's girlfriend. The Clinton "legacy," too, is becoming clearer: He will be remembered less as our Warren Harding — a petty crook, and grand lecher — than as the Neville Chamberlain of his generation, who wrote the book on how not to respond to terrorists' actions, and whose refusal to take them seriously set the battle back several years.
Barbara Olson would be delighted to know that the post-attack Clintons have stayed strictly in character. Bill is in despair at losing his place at center stage — all that pain he's not feeling — and he fears that the drama will wash out his memory. He is "worrying that his peace-and-prosperity presidency will be recast as a footnote to the Bush family dynasty," his friends tell New York magazine. As for Hillary, she equates the raw hatred of the terrorists to the protests she encountered in 1994 while selling her health plan.
George W. Bush promised in 2000 to "change the tone" of politics, and to some extent he did try to; but the fact remains that, until September 11, we were living in Bill Clinton's world — a culture defined by very large fights over very small issues, payback for injuries barely remembered, and, above all, unending hostility. On the last Sunday of her life, Barbara Olson was a guest on Washington Journal, a C-SPAN morning call-in program that is frequently civil. This time, it was not. The topic was the Thomas hearings, on their tenth anniversary, and the calls that came in were electric with fury, as if no time at all had passed. Names, charges, and threats were flung around wildly. At one point, Bill Press, Olson's co-panelist, became rattled, pleading for tolerance, saying that people could argue as friends. But the hate kept on coming. Close to the end, one woman called Olson "evil" and said she was "too filled with hate" to live long. On the very last point, she was only too accurate. Two days later, Barbara Olson was killed when her plane hit the Pentagon, and that age, and its rancor, died with her. It is a great shame that she is no longer among us, to fight on in this braver new world.