Some commentators think President Bush should say something about the rising stench created by Bill Clinton when he pardoned fugitive billionaire Marc Rich and a host of other sordid characters during the final hours of his presidency. Their argument is that since ethics and morality were so regularly violated by the ex-president, the current president "owes" it to the nation to speak up for the importance of character by denouncing his predecessor.
There is precedent, should President Bush need it, for continuing to say nothing about the eight Clinton years while elected and appointed officials in both parties probe possible wrongdoing behind the pardons.
When Vice President Calvin Coolidge took the oath of office in 1923, following the death of Warren Harding, the full extent of the scandal known as "Teapot Dome" had yet to surface. Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall had persuaded Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby to transfer Naval oil reserve lands to Interior, where Fall would have control of them. Harding signed the executive order for the transfer, thinking it little more than an administrative move. Fall then leased drilling rights in both the Elk Hill, Calif., and Teapot Dome, Wy., oil fields to friends who were oil promoters.
A Senate investigation revealed that Fall had received large "loans" and blocks of Liberty Bonds from the lessors. Hugh and Tony Rodham might have called these "success fees." Fall resigned from the Cabinet and was later prosecuted and jailed for his part in the affair. The leases were canceled in 1927.
Some believed Coolidge must have heard about the leases during Cabinet meetings when he was Vice President. Sounding like a few modern presidents, Coolidge said he did not "recall" any such discussion, though he did not deny the subject could have come up. Coolidge benefited from his record of personal integrity and his appointment of "special counsels" from both parties to investigate the scandal when it became public in 1924. No involvement by Coolidge was discovered and he was never implicated in anything illegal or unethical.
Unlike the current investigations into presidential pardons, which involve an ex-president of a different party from the incumbent, the Coolidge-era scandal (there were actually three scandals, all involving leftover Harding appointees) occurred in his own party.
Coolidge's public response is an example for President Bush. As recorded in Robert H. Ferrell's book, "The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge" (University of Kansas Press, 1998), the President said of Teapot Dome: "It is not for the President to determine guilt or render judgment in civil cases. That is the function of the courts. It is not for him to prejudge. I shall do neither; but when facts are revealed to me that require action for the purpose of insuring the enforcement of either civil or criminal liability, such action will be taken. That is the province of the Executive...Every law will be enforced and every right of the people and the Government will be protected."
That was the Coolidge strategy with Teapot Dome. At a Jan. 25, 1924 news conference, Coolidge elaborated on his position to reporters: "You can't start a criminal investigation on mere rumor. It requires, of course, substantial evidence, which can produced before a grand jury and which can later be produced at trial...every proper action will be taken to protect the rights of the United States and its property, and to protect the citizens of the United States against criminal wrongdoing."
Given the Republican track record of trying to hold Bill Clinton accountable for his serial misdeeds but largely failing (with the notable exception of impeachment), it is best for President Bush to allow the properly designated authorities - the Congress and the U.S. Attorney in New York City - to do their respective duties regarding Clinton's pardons. The results of such investigations will produce more credible and publicly acceptable results than statements by the current president.