Tuesday, January 30, 2001

If Bill Clinton wanted us all to be sorry upon his departure, he certainly succeeded. With a last-minute frenzy of executive mercy, consisting of 140 pardons and 36 commuted sentences, he provoked outrage and scorn in liberals as well as conservatives. No one will ever say of him that nothing became his presidency like his leaving of it. Just the opposite: His final acts managed the astonishing feat of lowering the moral tone of his administration.

This impulse toward clemency was a new one for Mr. Clinton. The 140 pardons issued on Jan. 20 were nearly as many as he granted in his first seven years. His former White House counsel, Abner Mikva, says the president had previously made a point of being “very chary with pardons and commutations” earlier for fear of being flooded with requests.

“He didn’t want to be heavily lobbied by members of Congress, and he wanted a reputation for being tough,” says Mr. Mikva. That’s Bill Clinton: always taking the principled approach to justice. The advantage of acting very late in his term is that he would not be around any longer to be pestered by politicians or to risk consequences at the polls for himself, his wife, or his vice president. So he could let his fancy run free. As it happened, his main impulse was to help out cronies, buddies, and people who did something for Bill Clinton and his party.

Susan McDougal, who went to prison rather than obey a perfectly legal order to answer questions before a grand jury, got her record expunged. Roger Clinton, a small-time cocaine dealer who spent a year in prison and happens to be Bill Clinton’s half-brother, was officially forgiven.

John Deutch, who as CIA director put national security secrets on an unsecured home computer, was spared any legal penalty. Henry Cisneros, who lied to the FBI during his background check to become Mr. Clinton’s housing secretary, had his misdemeanor conviction erased. The 27-month prison sentence of Ronald Blackley, who made false statements about outside income he got as an aide to Mr. Clinton’s first agriculture secretary, was commuted.

In these last three cases, Mr. Clinton had to forget what he said in 1992 when President Bush pardoned Caspar Weinberger and other officials involved in the Iran-Contra scandal: “I am concerned by any action that sends a signal that if you work for the government, you’re beyond the law.”

But the pardon that caused the biggest shock went to Marc Rich, a fabulously wealthy financier who was indicted in 1983 for allegedly creating the biggest tax evasion scam in American history. Mr. Rich escaped to Switzerland, which refused U.S. requests to extradite him, and has lived there ever since.

A pardon is normally granted after a wrongdoer has paid his debt to society and changed his ways, but Mr. Rich never even answered the charges in court. His only punishment was to live a life of luxury in Switzerland. Why did he warrant Mr. Clinton’s compassion? Perhaps because his ex-wife Denise Rich, who campaigned on his behalf, has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to help Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign and assorted Democratic Party committees.

You expect conservatives to criticize anything Mr. Clinton does, but this decision infuriated even his usual allies. An editorial in The Washington Post said the pardon was “indefensible.” The New York Times described it as “a shocking abuse of presidential power and a reminder of why George W. Bush’s vow to restore integrity to the Oval Office resonates with millions of Americans who otherwise disagree with the new president’s politics.”

The general effect of Mr. Clinton’s cascade of dubious favors is to raise doubts about whether the president should have an unchecked power that he can abuse so scandalously, to help his friends, his relatives and himself. Had the Framers foreseen Clinton, of course, they might have done a lot of things differently. But the pardon power, modeled on the prerogatives of the king of England, is virtually impossible to restrict, since it is set out in the Constitution.

So the obligation falls on a conscientious president to limit himself. Margaret Colgate Love, who was pardon attorney in the Justice Department from 1990 to 1997, says the healthiest approach is for the president to require all pardon requests to be reviewed by the attorney general (as Mr. Rich’s was not) and to make decisions well before the end of his term, so the voters can hold him politically accountable. It should go without saying that the president should never use this authority to repay favors to well-connected people.

In letting him select any individual he wants and pardon him for his crimes, the Constitution does give the president one of the powers of a medieval monarch. But that doesn’t mean he has to act like one.

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