How could two brilliant politicians like Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton create the fiasco surrounding the clemency decision for twelve Puerto Rican nationalists who were serving sentences up to ninety years for "terrorist" crimes in the 1970s and ’80s in which no one was injured, no shots were fired, and no bombs went off?

The Puerto Rican FALN members were convicted of having unlicensed firearms, transporting stolen vehicles across state lines, and conspiring to commit sedition; certainly not acts deserving suspended sentences but not, in effect, life sentences either. Their continued imprisonment generated a lot of sympathy in Puerto Rico, but this was not an issue that would send its citizens to the barricades.

President Clinton said the sole reason for his clemency offer (if they forswore violence) was the harshness of the sentences. That makes sense. The Puerto Rican nationalists convicted of storming the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1950s and wounding many legislators had received similar sentences for far more terrible crimes.

With Hillary Clinton about to make history by becoming the first First Lady to run for office, pundits claimed the clemency offer was to keep Puerto Rican voters in her camp. That’s far fetched. The release of the FALN twelve is not the single issue on Puerto Ricans’ agenda that would make them turn to New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Mrs. Clinton’s anticipated opponent. In fact, it has become a major embarrassment in New York with many Puerto Ricans on talk shows lamenting their image of being bomb throwers and fanatics. Perhaps requests of Puerto Rican leaders, such as, Congressman Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), and appeals from former president Jimmy Carter were enough to sway Mr. Clinton, who, in a recent years has freed only three convicts out of more than three thousand requests.

Was Vieques, the small island off Puerto Rico’s coast used by the U.S. Navy for practice bombing runs and a real bone of contention, involved? Gary Tuominen, the news director for the English-language radio WOSO in San Juan, suspects that the president is preparing to turn down Puerto Rico’s request to end the bombing and gave them the FALN releases as a sop.

Whatever the reasons, it certainly turned into a mess, and an almost laughable one at that as Mrs. Clinton first applauded the clemency offer then turned and ran as the firestorm threatened to engulf her. She says she and her husband never discussed the issue-though she didn’t wag her finger at the television camera and say, "I never spoke with that man about freeing Puerto Rican terrorists." Incredible.

The issue certainly put a crimp in Mrs. Clinton’s noncampaign (she has not officially announced) and removed some of the gloss from her. But it is a long way to election day and voters can be counted on to do two things: Forget quickly and love celebrity.

In delivering clemency, President Clinton, who is often pictured as a patsy, has once again shown he is as tough as any street fighter. He’ll need that armor soon when he does something that will really aid Mrs. Clinton’s campaign in New York: Release Jonathan Pollard, an act Israeli prime ministers and many influential members of the American Jewish community have sought.

Joseph Policano has written about politics for Commonweal for several years.

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Published in the 1999-10-22 issue: View Contents
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