Backstage At The Finale

He'd been up for days. Red-eyed and puffy faced, his voice hoarse with fatigue, Bill Clinton sat in the Oval Office for hours on his last night as president, talking with friends and aides as he sorted through eight years' worth of photographs, books and mementos. At 3:30 a.m., he was still up, tossing things into moving boxes marked Chappaqua, New York and library. Hillary begged her husband to quit talking and go to bed. The White House stewards, scurrying to get the place ready for George W. Bush's arrival in just a few hours, worried that the outgoing president would never box everything in time. But Clinton insisted on packing up the Oval himself.

Animated one minute, melancholy the next, Clinton was beginning to give in to exhaustion. In his last weeks as president, he had largely shunned sleep, working day and night in a frenetic effort to use his power up to the very last minute. All presidents wind up rushing to the finish line, but Clinton, in typical fashion, took it to the extreme. White House aides say Clinton felt a special urgency to leave a lasting body of work that the incoming Republicans couldn't easily erase. He told aides that even though he couldn't have another term, if he stayed awake for the remaining time "it would feel like four more years."

Over the course of those final, frantic days and nights, downing pizza and pastries, Clinton completed a staggering amount of work. He created eight new national monuments, nominated nine federal judges, packed federal commissions with political allies--and, in a final flurry of executive orders and rules, wrote hundreds of new federal regulations filling nearly 4,000 pages.

Clinton had hoped the dramatic flurry of activity would help to define his legacy as a president who took his job seriously to the end. But instead of spending his first few weeks as a civilian basking in the afterglow, he once again found himself at the center of yet another scandal--scrambling to explain his pardon of Marc Rich, the fugitive financier whose ex-wife had donated generously to various Clinton projects. Some close to Clinton say he knew perfectly well that some of the pardons might cause a stir--and went ahead anyway. Others believe that Clinton, up all night day after day, wasn't thinking clearly. Over the years Clinton had tried to convince himself he could get by just fine on a few hours of sleep a night. Time and again, he proved himself wrong. Struggling to extricate himself from a previous scandal, Clinton once told a friend, "Every important mistake I've made in my life, I've made because I was too tired."

Heading into his last week, Clinton descended into a heavy nostalgia trip. By turns ebullient and misty eyed, he would stop to thank White House maintenance workers and low-level staffers and pose for pictures, punctuated by long, soulful handshakes. He cranked out thank-you notes by the dozen, taking care to mention the names of spouses and children. In the evenings Clinton, often clad in a sweat shirt and baseball hat, loaded up visitors with White House jackets, coffee mugs and copies of favorite speeches. Dwelling on the past, Clinton would turn icy whenever anyone asked him about his future. He'd dismiss the question, saying he was "gonna rest for a while." As one close friend put it, "I think he was avoiding thinking about life after Jan. 20 as much as possible. He had this idea--obviously wrong--that he would fade into oblivion."

Always obsessed with policy arcana, he dug in deeper in his last days, reviewing dozens of obscure proposals that had languished in the bureaucracy for years. Cabinet members were barraged with questions from Clinton at all hours of the day and night.

After eight years, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala was used to the president's calling at midnight to chat. But in those final weeks, Shalala says she began sleeping with her briefing books next to the bed for fear that Clinton would call with a substantive question she couldn't immediately answer. One night he did just that, wanting to discuss closing a little-known Medicaid loophole.

By the time he surrendered the Oval Office to Bush, he'd signed new testing procedures for bacteria in hot dogs, tougher standards for arsenic in drinking water and regulations governing chicken feed. He held a White House ceremony honoring Lewis and Clark--and posthumously promoted Clark from Army lieutenant to captain. He was especially proud of a 200-page federal plan to protect Alaskan Steller sea lions. At times, his top aides seemed less enthusiastic about their boss's blistering pace. "I was numb the last two weeks," Shalala says.

At the same time Clinton kept up a hectic schedule of fare- well events. Aides who'd gone months in the past without seeing him outside the Oval Office were surprised to find him popping in on staff and showing up at West Wing ceremonies. On Jan. 18 Hillary attended a party in the Indian Treaty Room to celebrate health-care accomplishments. Suddenly Clinton appeared and began working the room. Yet longtime staffers could tell that he was "crashing harder" after events. "He kept telling everybody he wasn't getting any sleep," says one aide. "He was running on empty."

As Inauguration Day drew closer, Clinton was consumed with two final pieces of business: cutting a deal with the special prosecutor to end his legal troubles and paring down the list of hundreds of people who'd requested pardons and commuted sentences. The president's lawyer, David Kendall, had been negotiating with independent counsel Robert Ray for weeks, trying to work out an agreement that would allow Clinton to avoid prosecution after he left office. Ray was willing to deal, but there was a snag. Back home in Little Rock, the Arkansas bar wanted to disbar Clinton for giving false testimony in the Paula Jones case. In a tense meeting in the White House Map Room on Dec. 27, Ray made it clear that Clinton had to settle the Arkansas case before he would be willing to drop a potential criminal case against the president.

Kendall believed that with a little persuasion, he might be able to get Clinton off the hook in Arkansas with a one-year suspension of his law license. Kendall flew to Little Rock on Jan. 10 to talk face to face with Marie-Bernarde Miller, the tough-minded lawyer appointed by the Arkansas bar to prosecute the case against Clinton. The meeting did not go well. Miller kept Kendall waiting for hours while she deliberated with her colleagues behind closed doors, then emerged to deliver the verdict: Clinton would have to accept a five-year suspension of his law license. And the president would have to acknowledge that he "knowingly" violated a judge's order to provide truthful testimony. Finally, the Arkansas bar demanded that he make the admissions by Jan. 19, while he was still president. The usually unflappable Kendall was clearly perturbed as he returned to Washington to deliver the bad news to Clinton.

Clinton went for the deal, furious that hardhearted prosecutors were trying to rub it in by sullying his last day in office with scandal. "The Ray deal complicated things," says a top aide. "It was distracting." Aides say the president was visibly relieved to have the long-lingering matter settled, but later that day, when he finally turned his attention to pardoning others who'd run afoul of the law, it was with a full head of anger at the prosecutors who'd made his own life miserable for so many years.

Months ago Clinton realized that he'd been lax in taking advantage of the clemency privilege, pardoning only a handful of people each year. He'd approached Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder after a White House event and told him he wanted to start pushing through more names. But Clinton never followed up.

The outgoing president became obsessed with the idea of granting a slew of pardons before his time was up. On Jan. 15, the day Clinton and Hillary completed the deal on their new house in Washington, one of the people involved in the transaction noticed that Clinton seemed barely there. "You've been working so hard, maybe you can relax a little and enjoy the last few days," this person told Clinton. The president shook off the attempt at consolation. "I've got to deal with 400 to 500 requests for commutations and pardons," he said. Three days later Clinton took his last trip aboard Air Force One, a quick out-and-back to Little Rock, where he gave a speech to state politicians and soaked up applause. On the way there, he strode the length of the plane. Unexpectedly, he appeared in the press section. "You got anybody you want to pardon?" he said, laughing.

Back in Washington, the White House was inundating the FBI with the names of dozens of potential pardonees, ordering them to complete criminal-background checks and report their findings. It's a tedious process that usually takes weeks or months. Clinton was demanding answers in hours. The requests took the bureau utterly by surprise. They were already working round the clock trying to complete checks on scores of Bush appointees. Off-duty agents were called in to man the computers. (Clinton left one person off the list of names for the FBI to check: his brother, Roger Clinton; box.) At the Justice Department, whose job it is to advise the president on pardons and shuffle the paperwork, there was equal chaos. Staffers who had expected to spend their last day on the job packing up boxes and archiving files suddenly found themselves desperately surfing the Internet for clues about the obscure names on Clinton's last-minute list. A top Clinton aide says the president had been annoyed for months at the Justice Department's slow pace, asking them "over and over" to find more people who deserved pardons. According to the aide, Clinton told department officials he was "looking for justice."

After announcing the deal with Ray on Friday afternoon, Clinton huddled with top aides in the Oval Office to narrow the list. They had expected to issue the final pardons by 5 p.m. Instead, they continued to meet on and off throughout the night and into Saturday morning, adding names, deleting them, adding them back again as Clinton's mood changed. The president's aides were uniformly opposed to pardoning Rich, who had fled prosecution and had never shown any remorse for his alleged crimes. But Clinton had begun to cave in to pressure from powerful Rich allies, including Rich's lawyer Jack Quinn, a former White House counsel and Clinton friend, who took his case straight to the White House after briefly mentioning the matter to Holder. Quinn argued that Rich had been the victim of an overzealous prosecutor. It was an argument that hit home with Clinton. Under Quinn's careful direction, Rich's ex-wife Denise, who had showered the Clintons with gifts and large contributions over the years, wrote Clinton and pushed the same theme of unfairness at the hands of vindictive prosecutors. Denise Rich's friend and fellow Democratic contributor Beth Dozoretz also weighed in with Clinton. Rich had other supporters. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak called three times to press Clinton to pardon Rich, a generous patron of Israeli causes. According to one longtime Clinton friend, Barak's request was especially compelling to the president, who believed that he may have caused the Israeli leader's downfall by pushing him so hard to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Clinton had no intention of granting Barak's other request--a pardon of American spy Jonathan Pollard. Instead, this friend says, pardoning Rich was a way for Clinton to give Barak a kind of consolation prize. Clinton's aides tried to convince the president that pardoning Rich would come to no good. Clinton continued to pack up his stuff, then went to the White House theater to watch David Mamet's "State and Main" with family. After eight years, he still got a thrill from watching first-run movies in his own house. His staff was somewhat relieved, believing they'd talked Clinton out of the Rich pardon. They were stunned the next morning to find his name on the list. The tipping point for Clinton came Friday evening, when the president called Quinn, who was at a dinner party in Washington. According to a source close to Quinn, Clinton told the lawyer that he knew the pardon would be controversial. Would Rich agree to a pardon that would still allow the government to impose civil fines on him? Quinn hesitated for a moment, then agreed on Rich's behalf. Clinton told Quinn to draft a letter and fax it to the White House within the hour. Clinton later told White House staffers that the letter from Quinn persuaded him to go ahead with the pardon.

Rich wasn't the only person who may have won a pardon with help from powerful lawyers with ties to Clinton. The president pardoned James Manning and Bob Fain, two Little Rock businessmen convicted in the '80s on tax charges, even though the Justice Department received their applications just four days before Clinton left office. Justice Department documents obtained by NEWSWEEK show that the two men hired the law firm of Harold Ickes, Clinton's veteran political strategist, to help them win a pardon. Ickes acknowledges that one of his partners, William Cunningham III, consulted him about the pardons, and says he told his colleague where to file an application. Ickes denies contacting Clinton or any other government official on their behalf.

For weeks, reflecting on his own misfortunes, the president had been stewing about the unfairness of a legal system that gave prosecutors such wide-ranging powers. He resolved to send a message to prosecutors and independent counsels--pardoning more than a dozen people who had never requested clemency, and who had no idea Clinton had put them on the list. The president instructed aides to arrange pardons for more than half a dozen people convicted by independent counsel Donald Smaltz, who had been appointed to investigate former Agriculture secretary Mike Espy. (Espy was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing.) Clinton also pardoned former Housing secretary Henry Cisneros, who had lied about hush money he paid to a former mistress, Linda Jones. Clinton pardoned her, too, even though neither had requested the president's help. Clinton pardoned former Arizona governor Fife Symington, who was on the verge of pleading guilty to a felony-fraud charge. In December, Symington's lawyer, John Dowd, got an unexpected call. One of the ex-governor's friends had bumped into Clinton and without any prompting, the president said he would "entertain a petition for a pardon" for Symington. Dowd called Justice to get an application, then sent it straight to the White House. He didn't hear another word until the morning the pardons list came out, bearing his client's name.

Exiled in New York days after Bush's Inaugural, Clinton tried to shrug off the pardons controversy amid mini-tempests over lavish gifts and pricey Manhattan office space. But when congressional Republicans began hearings and started issuing subpoenas, it was obvious the scandal wasn't going to pass. On Sunday, Clinton tried to explain the Rich pardon in an extraordinary New York Times op-ed. "I believe my pardon decision was in the best interest of justice," he wrote, denying that Denise Rich's contributions played any part in his decision, and saying he had been convinced of the merits of the case.

Aides say that even Clinton, who prides himself on his political instincts, didn't see the storm coming. At a farewell gathering at Andrews Air Force Base on Jan. 20, friends worried the ex-president was so shaky on his feet that he might faint and fall over. He'd told people all he wanted to do was sleep for a few days. Now, once again in the center of the storm, the possibility of rest seemed far away.

Backstage At The Finale | News