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Clinton: out of office, but not out of the spotlight

Ongoing furor over last-minute pardons may damage his legacy and his standing in the Democratic Party.

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If Bill Clinton thought his pardon gaffe might have died down by now, his hopes have surely been dashed.

An investigation is under way in the House. This week, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton couldn't hold a simple press conference about her views on the Ashcroft nomination without fielding questions on the pardon subject. And high-profile Democrats keep weighing in with frankly critical remarks.

"I'm sickened by it," says Robert Strauss, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, referring to Mr. Clinton's last-minute decision to pardon financial fugitive Marc Rich. "The president used poor judgment, and the people around him served him poorly. It's hurt him terribly," Mr. Strauss said at a Monitor breakfast with reporters this week.

Indeed, the political fallout from Clinton's pardon of Mr. Rich - charged with tax evasion and racketeering, among other things - has been so heated that many believe it will leave a lasting taint on the former president's legacy. It may even impact Clinton's future leadership role in the Democratic Party - a role that, a little over a week ago, seemed assured.

Strauss, a highly respected senior political figure in Washington, says that Clinton's political influence may be damaged. He has received numerous phone calls from concerned Democrats around the country, he says. "I've never seen anything quite like this."

A close friend of the Clintons says the damage is severe enough to have a significant impact on the former president's legacy. He urges that Mrs. Clinton say: "I wish the president hadn't made the decision, and I disagree with it." As for her husband, "He has got to be much more forthcoming and try to invite people in to ask him further questions." He can't, the friend says, just continue to fob reporters off on Jack Quinn - the attorney who represented Rich and pushed for the pardon.

While Mr. Quinn says he is fully convinced that Rich deserves pardon based on the merits of the legal case itself, a host of other considerations have just about everyone else - including the Democratic leadership on the Hill - angry, embarrassed, and disappointed.

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