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Jewish World Review Jan. 31, 2001 / 8 Shevat, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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How far we've come: A theory of devolution -- THE peaceful transfer of executive power from one party to another has become an ordinary occurrence in American political life. But the first time it happened, it was extraordinary -- not just in the history of the United States, but of the world.

John Adams, the last Federalist president, cleared out of the White House to make way for Thomas Jefferson, the first of the new and dominant party then called Republicans, now known as Democrats.

The Federalists would disappear, a victim of their own disdain for the people. They were too proud to curry favor with the voters and too honest to disguise their belief in the paramount importance in a republic of liberty, property, order and a well-educated elite. Even when John Adams' son, John Quincy, succeeded to the presidency, it would be as a Republican. By then Federalists were gone.

John Adams chose not to stay for the inauguration of his successor, Thomas Jefferson. Hurrying home to Massachusetts -- to tend to a sick wife, he explained -- he took the fastest coach he could, abandoning the new capital to the victorious opposition. It would be 13 years before he would deign to resume his fascinating correspondence with Mr. Jefferson, another aristocrat, but one who flattered the people.

Before he departed, John Adams took care to fill all 23 new judgeships Congress had just created with good, sound Federalists. His party might have lost the executive and legislative branches of government, but he would secure its hold on the judicial branch.

One of Mr. Adams' midnight appointments may have represented his greatest contribution to his country's history: the chief justice of the nation's redesigned but still weak and barely formed Supreme Court, which would be relegated to a basement somewhere in the capital. The name of the new chief justice was John Marshall, and he would prove the court's greatest. It was largely because of his continuing genius that, although there would be no more Federalists, federalism would endure, thrive and become the faith of all.

In the end, it could be said of Mr. Adams' dying party, and was indeed said by one observer: ``It found America disunited, poor, insolvent, weak, discontented and wretched. It hath left her united, wealthy, respectable, strong, happy and prosperous.''

What a contrast with today's imperial ceremonies: John Adams hastened out of the capital without troubling to leave a farewell address. Unpopular, he would settle for being merely historic. Inflexible, his letters to Thomas Jefferson would shine long after mediocrity had overwhelmed many a now-forgotten successor.

Here in capsule is how the republic seems to have evolved over the last 200 years: John Adams would become known for his midnight appointments, Bill Clinton for his midnight pardons. Perhaps it might be better to speak of how the republic has devolved.

The list of those The Honorable William J. Clinton pardoned on his way out of office was long, but some names stood out: Susan McDougal and at least nine others who had attracted the attention of independent counsels. If John Adams was determined to reward Federalists, Bill Clinton seemed determined to do what he could for those caught up in the same kind of investigation that eventually elicited a confession -- or was it a non-confession? -- from him.

The list of those Bill Clinton did not pardon was far more interesting than the litany of those he did. Why not pardon Jim Guy Tucker, his successor as governor of Arkansas? Because this president was never particularly close to his successor and sometime rival? Or because Mr. Tucker stole only money and didn't undermine the very basis of law itself -- the sworn oath, the judicial process, the administration of justice?

Why didn't Bill Clinton pardon Webb Hubbell, an old friend who never ratted on him? It's a puzzle. Was it because Webb Hubbell's crimes were only mercenary, too -- because they didn't challenge the whole legal fabric? Whatever all these pardons say about the deserts of the pardoned, they may say more about the uneven standards Bill Clinton was going by at the hectic end of eight, scandal-specked years as president.

Two hundred years ago, John Adams would never have been re-elected president. He scurried out of the capital to no glittering farewells. His political party disappeared. Only his words and honor still shine. No doubt about it: We've come a long way. No need to specify the direction.

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