Politics and Pardons: Compassion or Expediency?

By Wall, James M. | The Christian Century, January 27, 1993 | Go to article overview

Politics and Pardons: Compassion or Expediency?


Wall, James M., The Christian Century


During the waning days of his administration, George Bush sent military forces into Somalia to help feed starving people - a creative and long-overdue response to a state of anarchy that our own cold-war policies had helped create. On a less positive note, he used his last days in office to order strikes against Saddam Hussein. Bush also used the end of his term to sneer at our laws and demean his office - which he did when he extended pardons to six figures involved in the Iran-contra affair.

In a statement issued on Christmas Eve, Bush described Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh's prosecution of officials involved in Iran-contra as "a profoundly troubling development in the political and legal climate of our country: the criminalization of policy differences." He added: "These differences should have been addressed in the political arena without the Damocles sword of criminality hanging over the heads of some of the combatants."

These comments ignore the fact that in the pursuit of political goals government officials violated the law. Two of the pardoned men had been indicted and four had been found guilty of criminal conduct - lying to or withholding information from Congress. Their pardons reflect not an act of compassion, but a contempt for truth-telling.

The choice of the Christmas season as a time for the pardons suggests that Bush was appealing to public compassion. He also correctly assumed that few people would be paying attention to news stories at Christmas. Barring any further pursuit of Bush by prosecutor Walsh, Iran-contra will likely disappear into the history books.

It's helpful to recall the nature of some other presidential pardons. A fist compiled by the New York Times included:

Bush's 1989 pardon of Armand Hammer, chairman of Occidental Petroleum, who had pleaded guilty to illegally contributing to Richard Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign.

Ronald Reagan's 1989 pardon of George Steinbrenner III, New York Yankees baseball club owner, who had been convicted of making illegal contributions to Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign.

Gerald Ford's 1974 pardon of Nixon for any crimes he might have committed related to the Watergate scandal.

Nixon's 1971 commutation of the prison term of Jimmy Hoffa, former president of the Teamsters union, on condition that Hoffa not resume union activities. Hoffa had been found guilty of jury-tampering and pension-fund manipulation. The Teamsters endorsed Nixon in his 1972 re-election campaign.

Some other notable pardons were not related to the sins of former presidents and their financial contributors:

Jimmy Carter's 1977 declaration of amnesty for all Vietnam draft evaders.

Warren G. Harding's 1921 pardon of Eugene V. Debs, the socialist leader who had been jailed for sedition.

Abraham Lincoln's 1863 declaration of amnesty for Confederate soldiers. (Andrew Johnson offered the same declaration for Confederate soldiers in 1868. …

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