Many a US President Pays the Pardon Piper

Many a US President Pays the Pardon Piper

Many a US President Pays the Pardon Piper


The media coverage of the Clinton pardons has been so biased, overblown and vituperative as to call into question the very purpose of what currently passes as journalism. It is difficult to recall a more partisan, one-sided hatchet job.

Surely, even the faintest sense of fairness would compel a comparison of former President Clinton’s actions with that of his predecessors and, as Rep. Henry Waxman pointed out at a recent hearing to a largely indifferent Washington press corps, Republican Presidents have more than matched the outrages of Clinton.

Forget Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard M. Nixon, which, while effectively short-circuiting an ongoing probe of possibly the most egregious behavior of any US President, can be rationalized as a healing gesture. Nixon had accomplished much, and he was by then a broken man. We can also overlook Ronald Reagan’s pardon of Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, who had pleaded guilty to violating election laws.

But unforgivable is what former President George Bush did. He protected himself–a former Reagan Administration official–in an ongoing investigation when he pardoned Reagan’s Defense secretary, Casper Weinberger, and the rest of the Iran/contra gang of six.

At the time, Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh bitterly charged that “the Iran/contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed”–by presidential fiat. Walsh called it “evidence of a conspiracy among the highest-ranking Reagan Administration officials to lie to Congress and the American public” and said that, “in light of President Bush’s own misconduct,” he was “gravely concerned” about Bush’s decision to pardon others.

Bush could easily have been said to have covered up his own potential culpability–far short of anything Clinton has been accused of doing in his pardon of Marc Rich or anyone else. Nor did the Bush Iran/contra pardons pass the one-more-pardon-before-leaving-the-White-House “smell test” so liberally applied to Clinton’s pardons; the pardon came after intensive lobbying by former Reagan aides and many last-minute White House meetings.

As for pardoning drug dealers, so upsetting when ordered by Clinton, again why no comparison with Bush’s similar and arguably more offensive pardon of that nature? Bush’s pardon of Aslam Adam, a Pakistani heroin trafficker serving a fifty-five-year sentence, would seem more startling than Clinton’s pardon of an LA Latino from a sentence one-fifth as long.

And, OK, let’s talk about Marc Rich. Let’s compare his pardon to that of another financier, Armand Hammer. If Rich bought his pardon, he at least felt the need to employ the precaution of funneling a contribution through his ex-wife, as some charge. Hammer was considerably more blatant. Not only had he pleaded guilty to the charge of making illegal campaign contributions but also, when pardoned from that offense by Bush, he forked over two gifts of $100,000 to the GOP as well as to Bush’s inaugural committee.

Those represented fresh contributions to an incoming administration that could continue to bestow favors–not, as with Clinton, to a soon-to-be ex-President’s library. But if it is library contributions that now so fascinate, why did House Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton turn down ranking Democrat Waxman’s request that the records of contributions to Republican Presidents’ libraries also be subpoenaed?

And imagine the outcry if Clinton had pardoned an immigrant exile accused of masterminding an airline bombing that cost the lives of seventy-three people, including twenty-four teenage members of an Olympic fencing team. Yet that is what George Bush did in acceding to the requests of his son, Jeb, to pardon Orlando Bosch, gaining Jeb support in Miami’s exile Cuban community.

The most serious of Clinton’s pardon excesses, that of former CIA Director John Deutsch, does not rise to that level, but it is odd that it has not been criticized. By pardoning Deutsch, Clinton ended an inquiry into how sloppily top secrets are handled at the highest level. The Clinton Administration had held former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee in solitary confinement for mishandling data that wasn’t even classified as secret at the time. It was Lee and not Deutsch who deserved a pardon. But that would have meant enduring criticism, and Clinton only does that for well-connected people.

What Clinton did in catering to the wishes of his rich backers was probably less motivated by library gifts than by misplaced compassion for well-heeled but seedy people. That makes it all the more depressing, for one would have hoped that someone who came up the hard way would know that the filthy rich don’t deserve special favors. But the rich pay the piper, and no matter who’s in the White House, Presidents do dance.

So it is, and so it always has been. The presidential pardon is a perk of office, which has only the function of exonerating those the judicial system would otherwise continue to condemn. It is a power begging to be abused, but no more so by Clinton than many a Republican President who preceded him.

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