It was more Democrat bashing than the poor Washington Post could tolerate. For weeks, they had dutifully reported the sordid details Bill Clinton's pardon bazaar, but then it all became too much. And so in late February, on the front page of the Style section (the paper's beating heart), reporter Michael Powell let fly with this attempt at perspective:
"A lame-duck president grants a slew of controversial pardons, eleventh-hour Get Out of Jail Free cards for the politically well-connected. His pardon list includes: A former Cabinet official who could have been in a position to implicate the president himself in federal crimes. An assistant secretary of state who withheld information from Congress and a CIA official who lied to it. ... Outrage billows. Editorials thunder. ... The president in question was George H. W. Bush."
James Carville couldn't have said it better. Ladies and gentlemen, the familiar "everybody does it" defense makes its debut in Pardongate.
But there was a world of difference between what Bush and Clinton did, and this casual equation of the two men really ought not to slide past without protest.
The wording is sly: "Get Out of Jail Free for the politically well-connected." It makes it sound as if Bush were simply giving special favors to those with suspicious access to the powerful. But that is not what happened at all.
In fact, the people who had been indicted in the Iran/Contra affair were high-ranking government officials who had done nothing for personal gain, nor did they betray their country or in any other way bring obloquy upon themselves. Former Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams and former CIA official Clair George, among others, were caught up in a policy dispute.
During the 1980s, the Congress was on again/off again about aiding the Contras. Most members of the Democratic caucus (and the Democrats ran the place then) were firmly opposed to Contra aid. But a minority of the Democrats did sometimes vote yes on aid. There were any number of votes on assistance to the Contras, and endless permutations of the so-called Boland Amendment, which forbade the administration from forwarding (it varied) lethal or non-lethal assistance to them. But Congress kept reversing itself.
The public was much more disappointed that Reagan had traded arms for hostages in the Middle East (breaking a promise never to negotiate with terrorists) than with the Contra angle that so outraged the Democrats and the press. But the independent counsel (which everybody
now agrees is a bad idea) had all the time and money in the world to come up with crimes. And so he indicted Abrams, George and Weinberger, among others, for withholding information from Congress -- which is not right but was not considered, until Lawrence Walsh pored over the code, to be the kind of thing that should land you in jail.
And the notion that Weinberger was "in a position to implicate the president himself in federal crimes" is sheer twaddle. It's bad policy to trade arms for hostages, but it is not a federal crime. As for the scheme to divert funds from these sales to the Contras -- well, it was legal on Wednesday but not on Thursday, depending upon the mood of the legislature. Consider the context: It was a decision to keep alive a bunch of rebels fighting a truly monstrous regime (our sworn enemy) while Congress dithered. The Reagan administration should not have done it because the Congress has the authority to dither. But to suggest that this goal was in any way comparable to the Rich or other pardons sold by Bill Clinton is ridiculous.
Bush announced his pardons on Christmas Eve, not January 20th. He had cleared them with Speaker of the House Tom Foley and Chairman of the Armed Services Committee Les Aspin. He did it because he believed, correctly, that they were honorable public servants victimized by the tendency of Democrats to believe that disagreeing with them is criminal. But it was nothing like the self-interested, contemptible actions of his successor.