Clicking on banner ads enables JWR to constantly improve
Jewish World ReviewMarch 5, 2001/ 10 Adar, 5761

Charles Krauthammer

Ch. Krauthammer
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Jackie Mason
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Roger Simon
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

Clinton haters? It's the pardons, stupid -- "The reflection that the fate of a fellow-creature depended on his sole fiat, would naturally inspire scrupulousness and caution; the dread of being accused of weakness or connivance, would beget equal circumspection, though of a different kind."

-- Alexander Hamilton

on the pardon power

Six weeks into the anti-Clinton firestorm, it is time to step back and ask: Why exactly has everyone -- former friends and supporters included -- turned so furiously against him? Okay. So the Clintons tried to make off with everything but the White House toaster. Is that what sent everyone over the edge?

No. It's not the furniture. It's not the bridal registry. It's not the Carnegie Hall penthouse. It's not the Inauguration Day grandstanding. It's not the eleventh-hour plea-copping on his Lewinsky perjury.

It's the pardons, stupid.

The pardon power is special. The American people feel it. Bill Clinton, oblivious as he was to the reverence due every other power of his office, from the Lincoln bedroom to the Oval Office, was supremely oblivious to the sacredness of this one.

The pardon power is sacred because it is the moral equivalent, in mirror image, of the death penalty. The death penalty -- final, irreversible -- is the ultimate in punishment. The pardon -- final, irreversible -- is the ultimate in absolution.

Condemnation and cleansing: There are no powers greater. In both, a civil authority is invested with God-like power: On the one hand, the taking of a citizen's life; on the other, the resurrection of a citizen's moral and civic life.

In Federalist 72, Alexander Hamilton twinned the pardon power with "the command of the military and naval forces," i.e., with the life-or-death power that military commanders enjoy. Its civil equivalent is, by logical extension (though not mentioned by Hamilton), capital punishment.

Think of the state's power over you as a spectrum. In the center is the zero point. The state just leaves you alone. To the far end of one side is capital punishment, where the state extinguishes you. To the far end on the other side is the pardon power, where the state restores you.

The pardon power is more profound absolution than mere acquittal at trial. Acquittal, too, is irreversible, but it merely confirms the accused in his original state of innocence, which is assumed always -- even through a trial -- until guilt is proven. The pardon, on the other hand, is the radical erasure, the transcendence of guilt as established precisely by that same ordered legal system.

It is because both the death penalty and the pardon possess such finality and G-d-like sacredness that over the generations both became encrusted with elaborate procedural safeguards. And it is precisely those safeguards that Clinton violated.

The death penalty is subject to endless review and reconsideration. The bureaucratic process can go on for decades. The review of pardon applications is not quite as elaborate. There too, however, the ritual of review and appeal is well established, not only to help avoid error and misjudgment but to reinforce the sanctity of the awesome power wielded.

Hence the revulsion at Clinton's last-minute pardon orgy. It is not just the corruption involved in whom he pardoned -- unrepentant fugitives, political supporters, relatives and associates. It is the vulgarity of how he pardoned. He ignored, indeed consciously avoided, the normal Justice Department review. Instead, in a chaotic adolescent all-nighter, approached by low-life pleaders (his brother and brother-in-law) and high-life feeders (Beth Dozoretz, Denise Rich), he handed out pardons the way a precinct captain hands out post office jobs.

The pardon power, a monarchical holdover, seems arbitrary and capricious. But there are two good reasons for it. One is mercy. Some individuals may be too harshly punished because the law is a crude instrument that necessarily groups offenders by category, sometimes arbitrarily.

The other reason is social peace. Hamilton cites the case of treason. More generally, however, the purpose is to assuage deep national rifts. Hence Lincoln's Civil War pardons, Harding's of Eugene V. Debs and Carter's of Vietnam draft dodgers.

In the Rich case, as well as those of Almon Braswell and Carlos Vignali , none of these reasons applies. These were not criminals unjustly punished. Nor did they represent adherents to some political cause deserving reinclusion in the American polity.

They were friends of friends, or just friends of money. That is why the Clinton pardons caused such a volcanic reaction.

One can argue -- people still passionately argue -- whether the Nixon pardon was wrongly decided. But it was clearly offered -- like Lincoln's -- as a good-faith way to end a divisive political chapter and heal deep political divisions.

The worst you can say about Ford is that he made a bad judgment. For Clinton, that defense rings hollow. It was not bad judgment. It was sacrilege.

Comment on Charles Krauthammer's column by clicking here.


01/26/01: How Israel will survive
01/20/01: Forget conspiracies on power, air problems
01/12/01: Meet Barak's legacy
01/22/01:Tale Of Two Presidents
01/22/01: Disqualified by His Religion?
01/15/01: Middle East madness
12/29/00: Bush's to-do list
12/22/00: Bipartisan blather
12/18/00: Defenders of the Law
12/08/00: Myths of chad
11/27/00: No more rule rewrites
11/17/00: Not by hand
11/13/00: Democracy and Legitimacy
11/06/00: Why Bush will win
10/30/00: Realities of war
10/23/00: Arafat's strategy
10/16/00: The Sleepwalkers
10/06/00: Arafat's War
10/02/00: Slanted to the Left
09/25/00: A Political Lite-Year
09/18/00: Barak's Last Chip
09/11/00: When Liberals Get Religion
09/05/00: Humbled by the Hayden
08/28/00: Man for All Seasons
08/14/00:... Back to the Future
07/31/00: The WWII Memorial: Inadequate and Out of Place
07/19/00: Camp David: Finality
07/12/00: The Oslo Interlude
07/10/00: Buchanan's Gift To Bush
07/03/00: Hafez Assad's Mourners
06/19/00: Hafez Assad's Mourners
06/12/00: Missile Defense Destiny
06/05/00: Let Peacekeeping Rest in Peace
05/30/00: Bush On Track
05/22/00: A Palestinian 'Peace'
05/15/00: Motherhood Missed
05/08/00: Regis Rules!
04/28/00: The Picture
04/24/00: Beware a Clinton Arms Deal
04/17/00: Cold War Kid
04/10/00: Our Russian payload
04/03/00: The Path to Putin
03/27/00: Red Cross Snub
03/20/00: A Nation of Oil Addicts
03/13/00: McCain in 2004
03/06/00: McCain off course
02/28/00: Profile in Courage
02/16/00: Europe's Austria Hypocrisy
02/14/00: A Winner? Yes
02/07/00: Politics in a Golden Age
01/31/00: Why Elian Should Stay
01/21/00: A Network Sellout . . .
01/14/00: Screwball Psychologizing
01/07/00: Desperately Seeking a legacy: Peace of the Anti-Semites
12/10/99: Born to Run
12/03/99: Keep Bubba home --- and his mouth shut
11/29/99: Not for Moi, Thanks
11/19/99: Where's the 2000 Buzz?
11/12/99: Reluctant Cold Warriors
11/08/99: Federalism's New Friends
10/29/99: The Phony Battle Against 'Isolationism'
10/25/99: Still With the Soul Of a Candidate
10/18/99: Nixon On the Couch
10/11/99: Slouching Toward The Center

© 2000, Washington Post Co.