JIM LEHRER: Now how all of this looks tonight to four columnists. Stuart Taylor of The National Journal and Newsweek; Tom Oliphant of The Boston Globe; David Brooks of The Weekly Standard; and Joe Conason of The New York Observer. First on the Hugh Rodham matter, Stuart, is there anything illegal in what he did?
STUART TAYLOR: Not from what meets the eye immediately. It's legal for the brother of the First Lady to lobby the president. It's legal for him to get a huge fee for a small effort, as seems to have been the case in the Braswell case. However, I think... I hope we're getting to the point in this country where something doesn't have to be illegal to be recognized as inappropriate and smelly.
JIM LEHRER: We'll get to that part of it in a moment. Joe Conason, have you discovered anything about what Hugh Rodham did or did not do that's against the law?
JOE CONASON: Well, I'm not a lawyer, Jim, so I'd be hesitant to offer an opinion about that. But on the face of it, there was nothing illegal, as Stuart said, in his representing someone or collecting an exorbitant fee for it either.
JIM LEHRER: David, Tom, either of you come down differently on that?
TOM OLIPHANT: No, not at all at that point.
DAVID BROOKS: No.
JIM LEHRER: All right, then, back to Stuart, to your point, if it wasn't illegal, what's wrong with what he did?
STUART TAYLOR: Well, what's wrong is that, most fundamentally, that a process in which personal influence of the relatives of the first family is brought to bear on behalf of people who suddenly emerge from the pack and get a presidential favor. There are thousands and thousands and thousands, for example, of small-time drug defendants who are for far more deserving of commutations of their sentences than Mr. Vignali was, who was a big-time drug defendant. But he gets the pardon. Why does he get the pardon? Well, partly because a lot of political influence from his wealthy father and partly, apparently, because he has an insider in the White House. I would think any president would be well advised to basically tell his staff, "When my family are here, they're social guests. Don't do business with them, period."
JIM LEHRER: Joe Conason, what's your view of this, just on the simple matter of propriety?
JOE CONASON: Oh, it has the terrible of appearance of impropriety, which I assume is why the Clintons prevailed on Hugh Rodham to give the money back immediately. At least that's what they say. They say they found out about it and thought it was terribly improper that he collected money for doing this. It is, however, you know, an old story, that people approach White House insiders or those who have connections to the White House for pardons.
President Bush's father, the first President Bush, responded to a pardon request from Armand Hammer in 1989 that was brought by Ted Olsen, a very prominent Republican lawyer, who is now a candidate for Solicitor General. This is not really something new and I don't know the fee that Mr. Olsen collected. But the reason the Clintons are so upset about this is because of the terrible appearance that the huge fee gives and the connection between Hugh Rodham, who's been caught in other unseemly behavior before, brings to this situation.
JIM LEHRER: David Brooks, what's your view of this?
DAVID BROOKS: There's a step further than what Bush did. The quote that crystallized this whole story was the a quote that Carlos Vignali gave in the "Los Angeles Times" where he was asked by a lawyer and he said, "Word around prison was that it was the right time to approach the president." And you can imagine the prisoners sort of whispering to each other, "approach the president."
And what the signal was that the White House had decided they were give pardons outside the Justice Department process, even hiding things from the Justice Department. And this created this piñata party where everybody who could grab some candy, grabbed candy and it left room open for Hugh Rodham; it left room open for the Hassidic men who were pardoned in New York State. It left room open for everybody who had a political connection, including Marc Rich through Jack Quinn. And this was the essential problem, it was the going around the Justice Department that created all the scandals that are now flowering.
JIM LEHRER: Tom.
TOM OLIPHANT: Let's stay with Hugh Rodham for a second. I don't think this is a matter of an appearance of impropriety. I think, to go back to Stuart's point, if this isn't impropriety itself, then it doesn't exist. You don't go to the president's brother-in-law-- I don't care if he's a lawyer like Oliver Wendell Holmes or something-- for any other reason other than his family connection.
But one can't absolve former President Clinton from the impropriety here, in contrast to his wife, because after all, at some point in all of this-- forget the money for a second-- he was aware that his brother-in-law had some kind of involvement in pressing these cases. And if you're going to properly behave as President of the United States and you find out something like that is going on, literally in this case under your roof, that's when the whistle blows, that's when somebody gets kicked out. That's when you stop it.
JIM LEHRER: The president should have told his brother-in-law "out of here?"
TOM OLIPHANT: Right.
DAVID BROOKS: He instigated it. He's the one who set the conditions where anybody with political connections could come into the White House.
TOM OLIPHANT: It's interesting, you know... I agree with you in part. There was an atmosphere in which a number of lawyers with connections to the Democratic Party in a prominent way or to the Clintons personally were approached by various people seeking pardons. Not all of them got pardons. It's an interesting thing to... but the atmosphere, particularly at the last minute, when Clinton is not sleeping at least the last night, possibly the last two nights of the presidency -- it's as if he thought that the only thing he had left to do as president was pardon people. And... but he had an awareness at some point that his brother-in-law was doing this.
JIM LEHRER: Do we know for a fact, Joe Conason, that the... has the President -- President Clinton pretty much admitted that he knew his brother-in-law... he didn't know about the money, but he knew he was working to get these guys off, right?
JOE CONASON: I don't believe that the denial that he gave about the money included not knowing that Hugh Rodham was involved at all. As Hillary Clinton, said she didn't know at all, but what I've read so far doesn't indicate that the president had no knowledge that Hugh Rodham was among the advocates for either of these men.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with Tom, that if he knew that, he's the one who should have stopped it?
JOE CONASON: Yes. I do. I think he should have said - or at least he should have said to Hugh Rodham, "I'm not doing this for you. Please remove yourself from this. I want to consider the appeals made by other people, like the cardinal of Los Angeles who made an appeal for Carlos Vignali," which he's since said he regretted, but there were a number of people advocating for these men.
And I think the president ought to have said to Hugh Rodham at the very least, you know, "Leave my office right now." On the other hand, I think what David said exaggerates a bit because-- and perhaps a lot-- because if you look at, for example, the largest single contributor to all causes Clinton, the library, legal expense trust, Clinton campaigns, Democratic Party and the library, except... was a man named Ron Berkel. He's a supermarket billionaire from Los Angeles, and he was a major, major advocate for a pardon for Michael Miliken, the convicted junk bond felon. He was not the only one, but he gave something like 20 times as much money as Denise Rich did, and Mike Miliken was not pardoned. Arguably, he had a better case than Marc Rich on the face of it. He did time in prison, he faced the charges against him. He's said to be rehabilitated, and yet he didn't get a pardon. From the explanation of bribery as the motive for these pardons, I think you'd have trouble explaining why Rich got one and Miliken didn't.
JIM LEHRER: Stuart, what's your view of that?
STUART TAYLOR: I agree with that. I don't think you can jump to conclusions that any one of the mix of political influence factors in the Marc Rich case for example was the one that put him over the top, or whether it was all of them together. For example, in the Marc Rich case, I think it's highly relevant that the only person who knew the facts of the case, who the president ever talked to about it was his former counsel, who was also Marc Rich's lawyer. That's Jack Quinn. Maybe that was it. Maybe it was all the money that Marc Rich sprinkled around Israel.
And you know, maybe... so I think you have to look at this from the objective facts. For example, all of the defenses the president gave for the Marc Rich pardon are full of holes. His claim that he wouldn't be criminally prosecuted today, or his suggestion is flat wrong. I'm told by experts that Marc Rich would be in worse trouble today if he had done the same thing.
And I think what's key is the honesty of the process. The reason it's so important for these things to go through the Justice Department is not so much that the president should do what the justice department should say-- I happen to think the Justice Department is often too reluctant to support pardons-- but he needs to know what he's doing. And you don't know what you're doing if it's you or your aides are having the brother-in-law whisper in your ear or the former counsel and you're slipping it through on the 11th hour of the administration without the Justice Department knowing what's going on.
That gives off a stench, and I think, back to the criminal front, we all agreed earlier that there's nothing on the face of the Hugh Rodham that creates a criminal problem. But when there's a stench, prosecutors tend to dig harder.
JIM LEHRER: David Brooks, speaking of stench, do you pick up one on this other one involving Hillary Clinton's campaign treasurer, Mr. Cunningham?
DAVID BROOKS: No, no. That looks like honest legal work. The fee wasn't that large, and it doesn't look like there's any...
JIM LEHRER: Tom?
TOM OLIPHANT: It's a very important point. Because Bill Cunningham is Harold Ickes' law partner, who is the brains behind Mrs. Clinton's campaign in many respects.
JIM LEHRER: And worked at the White House?
TOM OLIPHANT: Indeed. And Mr. Cunningham-- it was $4,000-- to fill out the forms, get the paperwork right and send it in. According to Mr. Cunningham, no phone call, no... I mean to the extent pardons are a fair process-- and I don't think they are because they do at some point depend on whimsy whether they're going on in the Justice Department process or something outside it in the White House-- but if you want to see as clean a process to the extent you can have one in this, that is it.
JIM LEHRER: Because the applications did not go to the White House. They went to the Justice Department the way they were supposed to go.
TOM OLIPHANT: That's right. And these guys were Republicans.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah, right. Joe Conason, is Congress right to continue their various investigations?
JOE CONASON: Well, I think to the extent that they can uncover facts that the public ought to know about how this occurred, yes. I mean if I felt that Dan Burton were going to conduct a fair and unbiased investigation of this, then I think everybody should welcome it. I'm not sure that's the case.
It's to be hoped that the Democrats on his committee try to keep this narrow and as nonpartisan as possible. But you know, presumably, Americans now believe in a majority that something was wrong with this, and to the extent that facts can be uncovered, I think they should be. I think it's very likely... the president, perhaps the ex-president ought to testify.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think he will?
JOE CONASON: I have no idea. I don't know.
JIM LEHRER: David Brooks, what do you think of Congress' role in this?
DAVID BROOKS: Only modestly. We've sort of got this two-track system in this country. It's like Europe where you have one group of boring people who are running the country and another group of self-indulgent famous people like in the royal families who are involved in all these scandals. We now have in Washington these two circles. The boring people are running the country, which is now the Bush administration and the Democrats in Congress and then the Clintons, you know, Bill Clinton as the Princess Stephanie of America. And if I were in the political class doing the worthy dull work of governments, I'd be very careful about getting into that other ring with all those other people.
JIM LEHRER: Will you buy David's analogies there, Stuart?
STUART TAYLOR: I think it's a beautiful analogy. I wouldn't dare tamper with it. I do think that the Congressional investigation, to get back to your question, is... they need to be very careful. On the one hand, it's useful for Congress to tell us all facts that we all want to know. On the other hand, there isn't a whole lot Congress is going to do, it appears, about the pardon power here. So you get to a point where you wonder how much legislative utility there is to it and how much of it's just beating the political drum.
They also need to be careful not to interfere with the more serious investigation that's going on, which is U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White of New York, a Clinton appointee, who's got a very serious criminal investigation going on and sometimes Congressional investigations can mess up criminal investigations, as happened during Iran-Contra, for example.
JIM LEHRER: Tom, what about the more general question that arises, particularly right... today. Here's the president... the current President of the United States holds a news conference, his first in 30 days, and he didn't quite get wiped out by Hillary Rodham Clinton's news conference and these developments over her brother, but it's close. Is this thing out of hand?
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, for a while during this rather bizarre process, you could certainly make the case that he was being overshadowed and what are you going to do? There's not much you can do about it. But in watching the press conference today, what occurred to me was that this is up to him because, if he is aggressively-- I hate to use the hackneyed word-- leading, pushing the country to adopt an agenda that he campaigned on, that he believes very firmly in and is marshaling all the arguments, using that pulpit, he's going to do fine on the news. I think what we saw today, however, is, either intentionally or accidentally, downplaying of his own power as president to lead the country. And that is what is taking over now, I think.
JIM LEHRER: But is he right, David, quickly, to just not talk about the Clinton pardons problem?
DAVID BROOKS: Absolutely. The problem is he's got this media structure now built in filled with people who are not interested in policy, columnists who've never written a column about tax reform or educational policy, who've been feeding off the Clintons for all these years and what's going to happen to all of these people? They're going to want to feed off of him.
JIM LEHRER: I got you. Gentlemen, thank you all four very much.