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Jewish World Review Sept. 1, 1999 /20 Elul, 5759

Chris Matthews

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The FALN: Hillary's Willie Horton

Chris Matthews is on vacation. This column is by Dick Morris. -- IN HIS RUSH to do favors for his wife's Senate run, President Clinton has given Hillary a time bomb which could well destroy her candidacy. His decision to offer a conditional clemency to 16 convicted terrorists from the FALN, a Puerto Rican nationalist group, will backfire massively.

Bowing to the pleas of a host of liberal New York City politicians, Clinton offered clemency to terrorists affiliated with a group that has taken "credit" for at least 100 bombings of political and military facilities in the United States. Then it came out that the two U.S. attorneys in the jurisdictions where the terrorists were convicted opposed the clemency, as did the Justice Department officials who reviewed it.

This hands Guiliani a gold-plated issue to use against Hillary. It summons memories of how George Bush used Mike Dukakis' furlough of a murderer (who proceeded to strike again) to win the 1988 election. These FALN terrorists will become the Willie Hortons of the 2000 Senate race.

Her problem is clear: Does she back the clemency or oppose it? If she breaks with her husband and opposes it, she'll earn the wrath of New York's minority political establishment. Reps. Jose E. Serrano, Charles B. Rangel, Nydia M. Velazquez and Eliot L. Engel all had urged clemency. They won't take kindly to being contradicted.

But heaven help her if she supports the clemency. Here's the ad Rudy can run:

My name is Diana Berger. In 1975, I lost my husband - and my son, Adrian, lost his father - when terrorists from the FALN blew up a restaurant in Manhattan where he was eating lunch, minding his own business. Now, President Clinton has offered clemency to 16 FALN terrorists who are now in prison for helping to carry out the group's bombings. Hillary is supporting clemency. Mayor Guiliani and the U.S. attorneys who prosecuted the cases are against it.

So am I. So is Adrian. His father would agree. If only he were still here.

The next ad might feature former bomb-squad detective Richard Pastorella, who was blinded by an FALN bomb. He might ask the Clintons to restore his sight as they free the terrorists who helped take it. If these ads ever run, that's it for Hillary.

As first lady, Hillary can hide in the White House and be sure nobody ever pops the question: Do you support clemency? But as a Senate candidate, to quote Joe Louis, "She can run, but she can't hide." Sometime on one of her listening tours, a voter or reporter will be very interested in hearing how she feels about it.

Liberals like to suggest that those offered clemency were convicted of relatively trivial crimes, but sources at the Justice Department tell another story. One of those Clinton would release is Juan Segarra Palmer, convicted in connection with the $7 million Wells Fargo armored car robbery, one of the largest in history. "One of the masterminds" of the robbery, according to sources close to the case, Palmer has also refused to assist in locating Victor Gerena and Filiberto Ojeda Rios, two key terrorists still at large.

Likely, the president offered to grant clemency - for only the fifth time since taking office - to help Hillary. He doesn't go out of his way to let offenders go: His other clemencies were for a bankruptcy and pot smoking. He thought he was handing Hillary a wonderful chance to appeal to New York's large Puerto Rican voting bloc.

This isn't the first time pardons have gotten Clinton in hot water. As lame-duck governor of Arkansas, after losing his re-election fight in 1980, he granted dozens of pardons to people serving time in Arkansas prisons. One man - a convicted murderer in his 80s who was suffering from cancer - promptly went out and killed somebody else.

Clinton was so worried that the pardon could backfire that he ran an ad apologizing for the pardons and promising never again to pardon a killer. That mea culpa advertisement ran alongside the ad apologizing for his having raised car-license fees, but never got much attention.

So now another clemency is haunting another Clinton. Usually, the president can be counted on never to make the same mistake twice. But, likely after hectoring from Hillary, he granted the clemency.

Liberals defending the clemency will find it especially embarrassing that none of the terrorists has yet accepted the president's offer. Apparently he imposed an outrageous condition: that they renounce acts of violence and stop associating with their FALN buddies. That they are uncertain about accepting this condition eloquently attests to how little they deserve the clemency in the first place.

It gets worse. After reviewing tapes of the phone conversations and letters from the jailed terrorists, officials with the federal Bureau of Prisons that even if they pledged to refrain from violence, they might still kill somebody.

Bill has just handed Rudy an issue that can kill Hillary's candidacy. With Guiliani's record as a prosecutor and his tough-on-crime positions, he is ideally suited to take full advantage of the blunder.

Just watch.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews, chief of the San Francisco Examiner's Washington Bureau, is host of "Hardball" on CNBC. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


08/26/99: Bill's guilt fuels Hill's race
08/25/99: The seemingly inexhaustible strength of America's free enterprise
08/23/99: GOP candidates are weak also-rans
08/16/99: Bubba on Bubba
08/11/99: Hillary's agonizing attempts to understand
08/09/99: With warm regards, Richard Nixon
08/04/99: Weicker: real third party is on the Left
08/02/99: Dubyah's last hangover
07/27/99: Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh; capitalism is gonna win

©1999, NEA