A Shower Of Gifts For Hillary And Bill

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Last month, when newspapers reported that Hillary Rodham Clinton had registered for gifts like a bride at a department store, many of her friends insisted Hillary simply wouldn't do something that tacky. Now that the President and First Lady have filed their annual financial-disclosure report, we have proof they would. Amid the DVD player and chandelier were $22,000 in china and $18,000 in silverware. Only one gift looks like a quid pro quo: furniture valued at $7,375 from Denise Rich, the ex-wife of Marc Rich, the fugitive tycoon pardoned last week.

The rest just smells bad. Most of us look at the platter from Aunt Katie with a wave of affection. Can you really get a warm glow from a place setting sent by a contributor you barely know who's angling for your attention? I'd stack my dishes on the floor before I'd accept a china cabinet from Walter Kaye, the insurance mogul who also delivered intern Monica Lewinsky to the West Wing.

What's most revealing here is not the gifts themselves--although it is hard to picture one adult giving another a sofa--but how horrified people were at the very suggestion that Hillary would lean on supporters to furnish her house. The Clintons have long dismissed the criticism of those in the vast right-wing conspiracy whom they don't respect. But how do you dismiss the views of those you do respect--who insist you would never sink so low, until they are silenced by proof of your grasping?

No prior First Family has reported a $190,000-plus haul in their last year (the Bushes only reported $52,000; Ronald Reagan's friends bought him a $2.5 million house, which he rented for $15,000 a month). While the givers may have hoped their generosity might remain a little secret between them and the recipients, the Clintons, well aware of disclosure requirements, had no such expectation. Even as Hillary was registering for the china (Spode) and the silver (Faberge), she understood that the day would come when she would have to admit to the world what she had done. In the absence of a law (the Senate gift ban didn't take effect for Hillary until Jan. 3) or an active conscience, you might think shame would rein in the Clintons. How many people would park in a handicapped space if they knew the next morning's paper would carry a picture of it? Answer: no one not in need of therapy.

Most Presidents are felled by failures of their office--Carter by the hostages, Nixon by Watergate, Johnson by Vietnam--but the Clintons have been brought down almost entirely by their sexual and financial escapades, the former his, the latter hers. Hillary's lapses have been explained away by her husband's low pay in Arkansas. Yet by most standards, the Clintons lived large in Little Rock; she was a partner in one of the city's leading law firms, they called the Governor's mansion home, and had only one child to put through college. Still, she got the family enmeshed in a shabby get-rich-quick land deal and cattle futures, which led to the Whitewater investigation, which led to Ken Starr, which led to impeachment. The most interest Governor Clinton ever showed in Whitewater was when he famously dripped sweat on James McDougal's office chair after a jog, stopping by for a look at the books at Hillary's behest. Ever angling, the Clintons actually took a tax deduction for donating used underwear (boxers or briefs not specified) to charity.

Here is the real tragedy: Hillary doesn't realize that finally she is rich, with her $8 million book advance and married to a man with massive earning potential. Just in salary and pension, the Clintons bring in about $300,000. So why did they debase themselves for gifts as if they were struggling newlyweds starting out? Some on the givers' list told NBC they weren't "wanting to give her special farewell presents," as a Clinton spokesman had claimed. They said they had been contacted by political supporter Rita Pynoos, who is married to a California developer, to send the gift registry a $5,000 check. Hillary didn't fill a pillowcase with the sterling after the last state dinner. But trolling for soup ladles you can easily afford is as irrational as the Fifth Avenue matron who filches a vial of perfume from the counter at Bergdorf's. Only Freud could sort it out.

Maybe the specter of giving up Hail to the Chief and motorcades puts you back in the nursery, frantic that your mother isn't going to warm your milk. But how can you ever have a home when it's partly filled with loot from strangers? There may be no connection between the disgraceful pardon Clinton gave Marc Rich and the coffee table Denise Rich gave the Clintons. But I'd never be comfortable putting my feet up on it.