Pardon the Reminder: What About G.H. Bush?

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

Clintons.

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

Cuban-American community.

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

bought.

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.