One of these days, the country will turn away from the
enervating pardon affair, having reached a final judgment that may depend
heavily on whether Bill Clinton can persuade Americans that he exercised his
Constitutional power reasonably and responsibly. Among his fellow citizens, if
not his enduring antagonists in the national media, the former President still
enjoys enough good will to obtain a fair hearing.
But faced with indisputable evidence that, among other
things, his brother-in-law Hugh Rodham peddled influence to at least two successful
pardon-seekers, the burden of proof is now on Mr. Clinton. While awaiting his
responses, a review of the contemporary history of Presidential clemency
provides some perspective-especially because the mainstream press has been so
derelict in providing context.
Deserving specific scrutiny are relevant acts by that icon
of integrity, George Herbert Walker Bush. The only Bush pardons that exist in
the media’s institutional memory are those he handed out so self-servingly at
Christmas 1992 to former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and others
implicated in the Iran-contra scandal. Others, however, might have raised
hackles if the press had treated him with the bilious attitude reserved for the
In 1989, for instance, Mr. Bush granted a long-sought pardon
to Armand Hammer, months after the legendary oilman had contributed hundreds of
thousands of dollars to the Republican campaign and the Bush-Quayle inaugural
committee. He had sagaciously joined Bush’s notorious Team 100 of top donors.
Hammer also hired a few well-connected G.O.P. lawyers, including Theodore B.
Olson, a close associate of Bush White House counsel Boyden Gray.
The following year, Mr. Bush allowed exiled terrorist
Orlando Bosch to leave prison and reside in Miami, even though the C.I.A. and
F.B.I. held Mr. Bosch responsible for such atrocities as the bombing of a Cuban
civilian airliner in 1976. (That crime occurred when Mr. Bush himself headed
the C.I.A.) The alleged mass murderer profited from intense lobbying by
Presidential son Jeb Bush, then a rising Florida politician whose wealthy local
business partners happened to include Mr. Bosch’s leading advocates in the
Days before he departed the Oval Office, the elder Bush
rather mysteriously commuted the 55-year
sentence of a Pakistani heroin dealer named Aslam Adam. Less
mysteriously, he also pardoned five fellow Texans.
At least three of the fortunate Lone Star felons belonged to
the Bush clan’s own socioeconomic set, meaning country-club Republicans. One
was a scion of the Cox oil family, which donates heavily to Republican and
conservative causes; he was also related by marriage to Mr. Bush’s old friend
and the former Senator, John Tower. This fellow had committed an $80 million
bank fraud but served only six months in prison. Another was a defense
contractor and big G.O.P. donor who had done
15 months for income-tax evasion. Somehow these few were apparently
distinguished in Mr. Bush’s mind from the hundreds of lesser (and
less-connected) folk whose pardon requests he summarily dismissed.
At the time, nobody deemed those log-rolling decisions
worthy of outraged editorials or snickering columns, let alone federal
investigations or Congressional hearings. They weren’t even reported in The New
York Times .
Such comparisons aren’t meant to condone the most dubious
Clinton pardons, of course, but they offer a corrective to the current
outpouring of hyperbole. Mr. Clinton may be able to offer persuasive arguments
for the last-minute mercies he bestowed upon narcotics trafficker Carlos
Vignali, mail-order swindler Almon Glenn Braswell and the four Hasidic crooks
from upstate New York. His justification of the Marc Rich pardon on the Times Op-Ed page was obscured by excess
verbiage about generalities, and he can probably do more to persuade even those
who think, on balance, that what he did was wrong.
Yet if he can justify
those other questioned cases, it is difficult to understand why he hasn’t done
so already. In the absence of a plausible alternative-and in the shadow of his
relatives’ blatant misconduct-many people who otherwise liked or admired the
former President have concluded that at least some of those decisions were
By waiting so long to
discuss his controversial acts publicly, Mr. Clinton may have obliged himself
to do so in a forum that he might otherwise have preferred to avoid: Capitol
Hill hearings chaired by one or both of an unscrupulous pair of Republican
politicians, Representative Dan Burton of Indiana and Senator Arlen Specter of
Pennsylvania. Both are figures of some disrepute even within their own party.
In the meantime, loyal aides such as former chief of staff John Podesta, former
White House counsel Beth Nolan and longtime aide Bruce Lindsey again will be
taking the heat when they testify this week.
It is past time for Mr. Clinton to step forward and clear
the record, if he can.