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Jewish Journal

Dear Bill: Thanks a Lot

by James D. Besser

February 15, 2001 | 7:00 pm

Dear Ex-President Clinton:

We couldn't help but notice that some of your most controversial last-minute pardons and commutations went to our fellow Jews.

Thanks a lot, boychik.

Many of your actions seemed justified, but a few had the pungent aroma of political payoff, which badly sullied the legacy you hoped to leave behind.

Eight years' worth of your good work -- with the economy, in the Middle East -- will be obscured by the memories of fugitive financier Marc Rich and the team of high-powered lawyers who used every possible route of political influence to arrange his pardon, even though he fled the country rather than face American justice.

And the depressing affair has also tarnished the Jewish leaders who were too willing to overlook Rich's motives in writing big checks to their organizations, too oblivious to the impressions a successful pardon drive would leave behind.

Rich won endorsements from prominent rabbis and Jewish communal officials, not to mention Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Some of the petitioners may have admired Rich's Jewish spirit, but it's safe to say that more were simply responding to Rich's riches -- and the hope of being rewarded with another big check.

But Bill, there may be one redeeming result of the disillusioning end of your presidency: you have provided a mirror that may enable our own community to see the corrosive impact of the all-consuming money chase.

It's the same impact, by the way, that the fundraising frenzy has on American politics and on the moral authority -- pardon the term -- of our political leaders.

More and more, big philanthropic organizations -- Jewish leaders are not unique in this regard -- depend on a small handful of big givers, not on membership fees or small donations from a broad pool of supporters. The reasons aren't hard to discern.

Jewish life is getting expensive, Mr. President, like politics.

Our community organizations provide a vast array of services, from education to drug rehabilitation. We have expensive schools, expensive community centers, expensive outreach programs to try to stem the assimilation tide.

Government is doing less, and that adds to the burden of philanthropy.

We have built big -- and expensive -- political operations aimed at supporting Israel, fighting anti-Semitism and working for human rights here and abroad.

And this network is expanding even as many Jews drift away from community life.

It's no wonder the big guys -- your pals with their private jets and art collections and checkbooks always at the ready -- are increasingly important to the folks who run our organizations.

Many of these are good people. Some of the richest and best known have given selflessly, without demanding anything in return.

But some give with motives that are mixed, at best; often, their help comes with big strings attached.

The economic imperative means our communal leaders are too willing to look the other way when the money is tainted, either because of who gives it or because of what they want in return.

Sound familiar? It's the principle that kept tripping you up throughout your presidency; it's the principle that has led to the surge of popular support for serious campaign finance reform, although Congress remains mostly deaf to the issue.

Like Democratic and Republican party treasurers, leaders of our communal organizations increasingly jump when the big funders come calling. And when the bills come due, they're only too happy to give the check writers what they want.

That's why so many wrote to you and appealed for Rich's pardon. In doing so, they overlooked Rich's alleged crime, and his flight from justice, his renunciation of American citizenship and the high-end life he has led since his self-imposed golden exile.

Some appealed in heartfelt tones for justice, but what they really wanted was to pay back a giver who might be willing to give more.

But as it does in politics, the overwhelming emphasis on big money has destructive consequences.

In politics, the stain of big money is a major factor in the alienation and cynicism of so many American voters. In the philanthropic world, it has produced a corresponding distrust, as well as a feeling by many ordinary members that the organizations they support are responsive only to a big-giving elite.

The pardons were a scandal, all right, but not a Jewish one; the lure of big money and the corrosion it can cause are endemic to American philanthropy, as well as politics.

Still, the image created by Rich's focused effort to line up Jewish leaders -- and their willingness to be lined up -- will create the impression that Jewish conniving was a major factor in one of the ugliest episodes in your presidency.

That's what happens when money blinds leaders, both political and philanthropic, to their nobler goals as they get caught up in endless cycles of fundraising.

The answer isn't to spurn the big donors; in today's world, doing so would only hurt clients.

But somehow the Jewish communal leadership has to do a better job of balancing strictly economic concerns with the moral authority they convey -- moral authority that was squandered in the tawdry Rich affair.

Thanks for the wake-up call, Bill, and enjoy your retirement.

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