A presidential pardon is entirely at the discretion of the president. The Constitution sets no bounds on his power to forgive crimes, no matter how heinous. But when Bill Clinton spared a tax fugitive whose former wife had given $1 million to Democratic causes, an avalanche of outrage landed on his head. Even staunch liberals like Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., called it "terrible" and "inexcusable."
There are countless follies, presumptions and temptations that can lead a government employee to embarrassment and disgrace. But whether you are a high-ranking member of the federal government's executive branch or a Chicago police officer, the road to ruin begins with a simple lapse of memory: forgetting that the job is a public trust, not personal property.
In feudal times, the people were at the mercy of their rulers. But the American Revolution upended that presumption. Our democracy rests on the proposition that all legitimate power derives from the people, and that anything the government has the authority to do, it enjoys only because the people have voluntarily granted that authority. When presidential aides or municipal employees exercise their prerogatives, they're using tools that are merely on loan.
But that's not how Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, acted when they decided to fire a slate of U.S. attorneys. They reverted to the medieval mindset that rulers answer to no one. They claim to have acted to replace weak performers. In fact, though, they got rid of some prosecutors that Sampson himself had rated highly. By the department's own admission, they fired another just to give the job to a former Republican National Committee staffer.
By sheer coincidence, they also banished some prosecutors who had either gone after Republican politicians or failed to go after Democratic ones. Sampson even tried to cashier Patrick Fitzgerald, a standout U.S. attorney who conceivably ran afoul of the incumbent administration by indicting and convicting I. Lewis Libby.
Presidents are free to fire and hire U.S. attorneys for the crassest of political reasons -- just as they are free to grant pardons out of sleazy motives. But if they do, they should not expect everyone to swallow the fiction that they are strengthening law enforcement.
If administration officials had acted with the clear goal of making the prosecutors' corps better, no one would be complaining right now. If Sampson had kept in mind that the chief of staff's job, and the jobs of the U.S. attorneys, exist only to benefit the citizenry, he might have spent Thursday strolling through the cherry blossoms instead of running a gauntlet of angry senators.
Showing contempt for the people who elected you, of course, is not a Republican invention. Clinton treated the White House travel office as a subsidiary of his political family, sacking veteran employees to give business to a company run by cronies. And that episode with Monica Lewinsky -- well, it wouldn't have happened had Clinton kept in mind that he was a guest in the White House, not the owner.
A few Chicago cops also made the same mistake of thinking they are masters of the public rather than servants. One off-duty officer, Anthony Abbate, got drunk and was videotaped kicking and beating a female bartender who refused to quench his thirst. His fellow officers took a month to arrest him, exhibiting a nonchalance they do not show when a bartender beats up a cop.
If that weren't enough, when Abbate showed up for his court hearing, a vigilant commander on the scene decided that the greatest law enforcement needs in the city at that moment were 1) to keep reporters out, and 2) to decorate their cars with parking tickets.
To his credit, Police Superintendent Philip Cline apologized, vowed to change the way these things are handled and demoted the commander. But cops shouldn't need to be told that, off duty as well as on, they have a duty not to abuse their position of trust.
Sometimes that obligation is lost on the lowest and the highest public employees. They might all do well to start each day by reading the Constitution to remind themselves of the foundation of our system of government. Not the whole thing, just the first three words: We the People.