When I was writing Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House, I devoted many hours to researching the most toxic pardon Bill Clinton gave on his way out on January 20, 2001. The lucky recipient was the appropriately named Marc Rich, the billionaire fugitive-from-American-justice who fled to Switzerland in 1983, living there on loot he accumulated by trading arms to Iran. Rich remained there rather than face charges -- brought by then US attorney Rudy Giuliani -- of tax evasion, racketeering, and trading with the enemy.
One of the people I interviewed was Eric H. Holder, Jr., and I wrote a year ago that the chances that Holder would ever become Attorney General in a future Democratic administration were, because of his role in the Rich pardon, "likely over." Boy, was I ever wrong.
When I interviewed Holder by telephone on December 5, 2006 he sounded wistful and resigned to remaining in the private practice of law. He doubted he'd go back into government service. "I'm in love with my wife and it's not likely she's going to let that happen," he said, explaining that he works many fewer hours in private practice than he did in government. As a partner at Covington & Burling, he certainly made much more money -- $2.1 million in 2008 alone.
He had already met and bonded with Barack Obama when he was seated next to the newly elected U.S. senator at a Washington dinner party in 2004. Obama was impressed with his fellow Columbia graduate and basketball enthusiast, but Holder must not have realized then how impressed, and besides, in December 2006, Hillary, not Obama, was "the inevitable" nominee.
Holder's life's ambition has been to be Attorney General (he was Janet Reno's deputy and acting AG for a short time before John Ashcroft took over). That he felt his goal stymied was evident in interviews Holder gave in 2001, some six weeks after Clinton left office, the fallout over the Rich pardon turning the former president into a pariah and Holder into an enabler. Holder told a reporter for the Washington Post, after a difficult appearance before the Senate Judiciary committee that he wanted to "crawl into bed and pull the covers up over my head....I'm done. Public life's over for me. I had a moment in time. That moment has passed."
So Holder was also wrong.
Holder told members of the Judiciary Committee last Thursday that his role in the Rich pardon was a mistake and that he learned from that mistake and would not repeat it. Mentioned from time to time during the hearing were the names Al Gore and Jack Quinn, both of whom were tied, in different ways, to that mistake.
Back in the late 1990s and through most of 2000, Holder, then deputy AG, had good reason to think that Al Gore would be president. Gore had been groomed for the White House from birth, had taken all the right steps, and would have been president had Clinton not had sex in the White House with Monica Lewinsky. Holder also had good reason to hope that Gore would nominate him to be Attorney General.
That's where Washington lobbyist Jack Quinn comes in. He was Al Gore's friend and his former chief of staff. Al Gore had sacrificed by agreeing in 1995 to let Quinn go to Bill Clinton as his White House counsel. Quinn served in that capacity until 1997 when, he told me, he left government so he could make some money. "I was living on borrowed money in the years I was in the White House...I was literally borrowing money from a bank to put food on the table."
Quinn had subsequently signed on as Marc Rich's lawyer, tasked with helping the disgraced commodities trader win a presidential pardon. I interviewed Quinn (by telephone) three times in February and March, 2007. I found him forthcoming, and like Holder, still reeling from the aftershocks of the Rich pardon some six years before.
Holder's critics charge him with quietly pushing the pardon petition along; keeping the Justice Department's pardon attorney on the sidelines so that Clinton would not be warned that pardoning a fugitive from justice was a very bad idea. In their minds, Holder deliberately didn't look too closely at the Rich pardon because Rich's lawyer, Jack Quinn, could help persuade Gore, once elected President, to name Holder the nation's top law-enforcement officer.
In my interviews with them, both Holder and Quinn vehemently denied any arrangement, even an unspoken one. "Absolutely untrue," said Quinn, "it would have been highly improper, and nothing I did and nothing the President did was improper. It may have been mistaken; it may have been politically tone deaf, but it was in no way, shape or form improper."
Holder's response was equally adamant: "There were a whole host of people who expressed their support assuming Gore would win...you become attorney general.....The notion that someway or other these things were in any way tied is totally, totally wrong."
Then working as a lawyer, a partner at Arnold & Porter, he was pushing Clinton hard at the close of his second term; in letters, emails, and a face to face meeting. Quinn told me that he had both personal and telephone conversations with Holder about the pardon, and that Holder "said things that suggested that he and the [Justice] Department would not oppose this. His precise words I don't recall." Quinn explained that he went to Holder, not because he wanted to sneak the pardon in, but because having himself been White House counsel, "I was well aware of the pardon attorney's guidelines for the matters that came before the pardon attorney and this didn't fall within the parameters of the pardon attorney's authority."
For Holder, the hearings this week were much more pleasant than those he endured in 2001 when he was hauled before a televised House Government Reform Committee by Clinton nemesis Dan Burton, Republican of Indiana. Burton called Holder, who testified voluntarily, a "willing participant in the plan to keep the Justice Department from knowing about and opposing" a pardon for Rich. Burton's report also cited an email to members of Rich's team from Jack Quinn, dated November 18, 2000. Quinn wrote that he spoke to "'Eric,' the night before. 'He says go straight to wh. [White House] also says timing is good."
Even after the United States Supreme Court gave the election to George W. Bush and Holder's chances to be Attorney General were over, Quinn was still pushing Holder to help. "Dear Eric: I hope you can say you agree with this letter [to Bill Clinton]. Your saying positive things, I'm told, would make this happen." Quinn wrote to Holder January 10, 2001.
Many of Clinton's friends told me that Clinton "did it [granted the pardon] for Jack Quinn." Quinn told me that pushing the pardon was "the single biggest regret of my life" because it so damaged the reputation of Bill Clinton. "I don't know if you can tell from talking to me," Quinn said, "that this is without any doubt and far and away the most painful thing in my life.... painful to look back on that whole thing. It was just a horrible experience."
And it changed his life in a way with which most Washington insiders could identify. After leaving his White House job, Quinn told me, he had been a regular on political shows -- especially in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal. But after the Rich pardon explosion, invitations dried up. "I believe that no one ...was on television more than I in defense of Bill Clinton," Quinn said. "When I was out there defending him on the Lewinsky stuff...there was at least one occasion when I said to people in the White House, 'I feel like I'm pretty far out on a limb here and ...if I am saying things that are not true, that I shouldn't be saying, please pull me back in from that limb,' and no one ever did."
Both Quinn and Holder have been financially successful since the Rich pardon tarnished their reputations. But Holder seems to have transcended any damage; to have the kind of second chance that is usually the stuff of bad novel, not real life.
The transcript of this just completed Judiciary Committee hearing will be one that Holder can proudly share with his children and grandchildren. He told me in 2007 that the 476-page report issued in 2002 by Dan Burton's Committee, in which he was described as a ''willing participant in the plan to keep the Justice Department from knowing about and opposing'' a pardon for Marc Rich was a document he couldn't think about without feeling deep pangs of regret.
"This is truly personal ....Dan Burton is a lot of things, fair is not among them, .... I was dismissive of [the hearing] and [said], 'This is just nonsense'.....You have an opportunity to send comments or letters in response to whatever the report is, and I never availed myself of that opportunity. ....My kids, grandkids, whomever reading about Dan Burton's view of what happened in the pardon situation will go un-rebutted because I didn't take the time to put in, "It's wrong here, ... it's wrong there.'"
Republicans had vowed not to rubberstamp this appointment -- as they have all the other cabinet nominees thus far. Holder emerged unscathed. When the Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican Arlen Specter got tough with Holder, accusing him, in essence, of giving Al Gore special treatment by refusing to seek a special counsel to investigate Gore's actions in a 1996 fundraiser which, critics charged, violated campaign finance laws, Holder promptly put Spector in his place: 'You're getting close to questioning my integrity and... that's not fair."
As for Jack Quinn, he is still not seen much on television. He has given up practicing law and now runs a lobbying firm. On the second day of Eric Holder's hearings, I was checking on line to see if Quinn had been mentioned, and the first link was to a press release from PCI (Property Casualty Insurers Association of America) announcing that it had retained Quinn's firm, "one of the leading government relations firms in the nation's capital...[to] assist PCI's federal government relations team in navigating through the expected push for financial services regulatory reform at the federal level which could impact the insurance industry and the way it does business for decades to come."
So as the White House changes hands again, eight years after both Quinn and Holder might have felt their best days were behind them, the wheels of government and lobbying continue to grind, producing, along the way, some second chances and, in any case, plenty of hefty fees to put good food on the table.