IN THIS WEEK'S torrent of well-deserved criticism aimed at President Bush for sparing I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby a prison sentence, one attack stood out. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D.-N.Y.) denounced the administration for considering itself above the law, and said the commutation "sends the clear signal that in this administration, cronyism and ideology trump competence and justice." She happens to be right. A defining feature of this administration has been its arrogant refusal to submit to the most basic public inquiry, a hubris that extends to its rejection of the rule of law.
But Clinton is a particularly poor spokeswoman for that idea, as her husband displayed the same cavalier regard for equal justice under the law. With the sand running out on his administration, President Clinton hustled through pardons for 141 people and commutations for 36 more. Among those who received pardons were 27 men and women convicted of drug crimes, deserters from the military, a former member of the Clinton Cabinet who pleaded guilty to making false statements to authorities, and various perjurers and obstructionists. Clinton's half-brother walked away that day with a clean record, as did Patty Hearst and financier Marc Rich — at the time a fugitive from justice on charges of violating the embargo against trade with Iran, tax evasion and other unsavory deeds. Clinton's pardons were particularly offensive because they were issued just as his presidency ended, so there was no way for him to be held accountable for his misuse of power.
Hillary Clinton is not Bill Clinton, and his misdeeds are not hers. But her candidacy for president is appealing to many voters in part because she embodies the restoration of his administration, still glitteringly popular among the hard-core Democrats who will pick the next nominee. It is in that context that her remarks on the Libby case highlight the uncomfortable tension in what she offers to voters: She seeks to surround herself with her husband's legacy and yet strains to stand apart from it. Other candidates criticized Bush for the Libby commutation too, but only Clinton's comments provoked White House spokesman Tony Snow to question her "chutzpah," in light of the Clinton administration's pardon record.
Hillary Clinton's attempt to have it both ways — to carry the banner of the Clinton years without their burden — makes her vulnerable to that sort of ridicule. We will see much more in the months to come. But already it is evident that her strength is also her straitjacket. It devalues the excitement that should attend her historic campaign, and, in the case of her remarks on Libby, it can hamstring her even when she's right.