HE STOOD BEAMING, as if it were his birthday. While Bill Clinton heard an exuberant crowd serenade him with the soul classic “Stand By Me,” the former president hadn't a worry in the world. Amid much hoopla on July 30, he opened his brand-new, taxpayer-funded office on Harlem's 125th Street, hard by a McDonald's. Chinese funny money? Long forgotten. Cash for clemency? Old news. Mary Jo White's probe of his midnight pardon spree? The U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan is as silent as the National Organization for Women during Zippergate.
Once again, Bubba has walked. But Clinton is just the most prominent beneficiary of a growing culture of impunity that lets powerful Americans stroll serenely away from suspected wrongdoing or actual lawbreaking. While ordinary citizens remain accountable for their actions, for many officials, “Equal justice under law” is less a principle than a punchline.
Rep. Gary Condit (D - California) currently enjoys this kid-glove treatment. Washington, D.C. police say Condit is not a suspect in the disappearance of former intern Chandra Levy. Condit also is presumed innocent until proved guilty. Still, he votes on vital matters in the House of Representatives despite incredibly shabby behavior unbecoming a member of Congress.
Condit's reported actions clash violently with the notion that he is an innocent man who, at most, skirted his marriage vows.
”Do you have any idea where my daughter is?” Susan Levy says she asked Condit by phone around May 3, even before she spoke with police. An innocent man would not reply, as Mrs. Levy says Condit did: “No, I don't know where she's at, but I'll put up a $10,000 reward.”
An innocent man would not delay repeated police requests for interviews when his “good friend” was in potential danger.
An innocent man would not encourage an acquaintance to provide authorities a false affidavit.
An innocent man would not have someone drive him in a black Volkswagen across state lines to throw a wristwatch box into a Virginia garbage can shortly before cops searched his apartment.
An innocent man would not prevent police from removing from his closet a pair of pants that was stained red.
As if it were a mystery program called “Alfred Hitchcock Live,” this puzzling case has generated more curiosity than outrage. Calls for Condit's resignation have been isolated. He remains on the House Intelligence Committee, though he is enormously vulnerable to blackmail by hostile nations that might crave “access” to a pliable legislator. Condit has paid no price yet for apparently tampering with witnesses, impeding a police inquiry, deceiving investigators and discarding potential evidence.
Despite possible foul play, pundits shrug. “I'm sure it is very sad that Miss Levy is missing,” liberal columnist Molly Ivins told CNN's Reliable Sources, “but it's not going to change people's lives.”
At this writing, Washingtonpolice seem flummoxed. Before long, the “innocent man” from Modesto likely will stop sprinting from TV cameras as though engaged in an Olympic event. As the shorelines beckon, Americans will let thoughts of Chandra float out with the tide as Condit fades from memory.
No one remembers Kenneth Bacon. As the Defense Department's Inspector General concluded, the former Pentagon spokesman ordered an aide to leak unflattering details from Linda Tripp's personnel file to New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer in March 1998. While this clearly violated the federal Privacy Act, Bacon never got thrown into the frying pan.
Lon Horiuchi also is forgotten. The FBI sniper shot Vicki Weaver during a 1992 siege at white separatist Randy Weaver's Ruby Ridge, Idahohome. Mrs. Weaver held their infant daughter in her arms as Horiuchi's bullet killed her. While a federal appellate panel ruled that he could face a state manslaughter indictment, Boundary County prosecutor Brett Benson last June 14 dropped charges against the G-man.
Senator Hillary Clinton's brother, Hugh Rodham, wriggled down the memory hole when the Florida Bar cleared him of ethics charges on July 20. He took $200,000 each from cocaine trafficker Carlos Vignali and money launderer Glenn Braswell after securing their pardons from his brother-in-law. While Rodham returned his clients' money, Florida
lawyers are not supposed to receive contingency fees in criminal matters.
These well-oiled escape hatches for the influential and connected fuel cynicism among those who expect the law to treat Americans even-handedly. Instead, a two-tiered justice system is emerging where those who pay the bills face the music while those who spend their money waltz off into the sunset.