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The spotlight fight

National | Washington is asking: Will President Bush benefit or suffer from the media's ongoing focus on Bill Clinton?

Issue: "Mel Martinez: HUD's man," March 3, 2001

On President Bush's inauguration day, Bill Clinton promised he wasn't going away, and neither has the media attention. With bipartisan disgust over Mr. Clinton's last-minute pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, and surprise at the greedy appearances left by the former president's improper furniture finagling and six-figure lecture fees, Washington is asking: Will President Bush benefit from the latest Clinton scandals-or suffer?

TV news counters at the New York-based Tyndall Report found that on ABC, CBS, and NBC evening newscasts from February 5 to 9, "Bill Clinton's pardons and parting gifts combined to attract more coverage (30 minutes vs. 22) than George Bush's tax cut plan." In the next week, Mr. Clinton's ex-presidency collected another 48 minutes of attention, while Mr. Bush's visits to military installations to talk up defense reform drew only seven minutes.

Will TeamBush be able to sell their policy priorities in this "Clinton Watch" atmosphere? "Presidents need to use the bully pulpit, not just to alert citizens that they have a plan, but to offer their case," said Rich Noyes, director of media analysis at the Media Research Center, "and the media attention to Marc Rich is extinguishing Bush's ability to make his case."

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Bush campaign consultant Mark McKinnon told reporters there was some White House "heartburn" at the disparity, but noted the negative tenor of Clinton coverage is a plus: "For voters it's created such a stark contrast in appearances that it's enhanced their perception of the Bush administration."

The spotlight fight will continue when President Bush's joint address to Congress on Feb. 27 may be surpassed by House hearings on the Rich pardon two days later featuring Clinton White House lawyers John Podesta, Beth Nolan, Bruce Lindsey, and Jack Quinn. The Government Reform and Oversight Committee wants bank records and White House access records on Mr. Rich's ex-wife Denise to see how her interactions with the Clintons may have influenced the pardon.

The story began with Mr. Clinton's unprecedented pardon of a fugitive, a man who sold oil to the Iranians as they held Americans hostage in 1980. It embarrassed liberals who hate the image of rich people buying their way out of legal trouble, while the poor go to prison. But new details kept the story bubbling. The House investigation discovered Mr. Clinton had been briefing Democratic National Committee fundraiser Beth Dozoretz on how he wanted to pardon Mr. Rich. The probe prompted Mrs. Rich to exercise her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Senate investigators found that pardon attorney Roger Adams learned of the Rich pardon just hours before Mr. Bush's inauguration. U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White opened a criminal investigation into whether Mr. Rich was funneling foreign money to his wife for political contributions.

Bill Clinton himself added to the controversy by penning a New York Times op-ed defending himself that drew barbs for its inaccuracies, like suggesting Republican lawyers who once toiled for Mr. Rich lobbied Mr. Clinton for the pardon. Last week, even Jimmy Carter disparaged Mr. Clinton: "I don't think there is any doubt that some of the factors in his pardon were attributable to his large gifts. In my opinion, that was disgraceful."

Mr. Carter's opinion stood in stark contrast to President Bush, who told reporters on a flight back from Norfolk that "I think it's time to move on." Mr. Bush's agnostic stance drew fire from prominent Clinton critics. "It is a continuation of the D.C. clubhouse mentality where one winks at possible corruption," protested Fox star Bill O'Reilly on his cable TV show. "What we have here is a massive ethical breakdown on the part of the federal government. Mr. Clinton is the chief engineer of that breakdown, but Mr. Bush now bears some responsibility as well."

But unlike Mr. Clinton, Mr. Bush's "move on" mantra didn't disparage further investigation by the Congress or the media. He suggested uncritically that "the Congress is going to do what they're going to do," and when asked about the appearance of pardons for sale, he quipped: "That's up for the able journalists in America to determine."

From the earliest stirrings of his presidential campaign, Mr. Bush has stayed relentlessly consistent on some issues, and one of those is his refusal to criticize Mr. Clinton's personal honesty or integrity (unless he pledged obliquely to restore these qualities to the White House). This political jujitsu avoided the reflexive pro-Clinton hot buttons of Democrats and media personalities, and may be an important factor in this nearly unanimous Clinton legacy-lashing. Staying above the fray may be smart politics for Mr. Bush, but he's frustrating those who've spent years investigating the Clintons' ethics. They'd like a little help.

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