The 14 people pardoned by outgoing President George Bush during the week of Thanksgiving - not including the two turkeys - are probably just a warm-up for the flood of pardons expected to pour from his pen in the waning light of his presidency. While President-elect Barack Obama swims in a sea of resumes for top White House jobs, Bush is fielding a record number of petitions for pardons or commutation of sentences this year, according to the Justice Department.
Surprisingly, having issued only 171 pardons so far, Bush has been one of the most frugal presidents since World War II. Some suspect that distinction is about to change.
Last-minute presidential pardons are a time-honored tradition, and many presidents have taken to the task with great gusto. Bush's predecessor, President Bill Clinton, issued 140 pardons on his last day in office. Some, like his pardon of oilman Marc Rich, indicted for racketeering and mail and wire fraud, drew a firestorm of controversy. George H.W. Bush got into hot water for pardoning former Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger and other members of President Reagan's administration, who had been charged with conspiring in the Iran-Contra affair. Following President Richard M. Nixon's resignation in the Watergate scandal, the new president, Gerald Ford, turned around and pardoned him of all involvement.
Bush, meanwhile, will almost certainly draw his own fair share of criticism. He is barely escaping his final term in office with one of the lowest approval ratings of any president in history. He will therefore be starting out with more critics than usual, and they are all poised to condemn his choices, regardless of whom they are.
At this point, however, Bush has little to lose and everything to gain as he returns to the private sector. Like most outgoing presidents still young enough to work, he is going to need another job. Pardons of former friends and colleagues are always in the mix. But strategic pardons that put him in good stead with potential new employers are especially important.
Bush has also never appeared to be bothered much by ethical considerations when naming friends and benefactors to high-level positions or throwing his full support behind people who had clearly proven incompetent at their jobs. His support for disgraced FEMA chief Michael D. Brown in the midst of the Hurricane Katrina disaster is now legendary. It became the standing joke that any time Bush publicly supported someone, their job was in jeopardy. Attorney General Albert Gonzales, under question for his firing of eight federal prosecutors, comes to mind.
Cup in Hand
Among the list of people seeking presidential pardons this year are convicted junk bond king Michael Milken, "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh, former California congressman Randy "Duke" Cunning, and former governor of Louisiana Edwin Edwards.
Those whose pardons might prove controversial, however, know enough to avoid the paperwork. The less advance warning they give about their potential deal, the less chance that a public backlash might sink their changes of receiving one.
In this category, bets are being placed on several frontrunners. Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, recently convicted of seven felony conspiracy counts, is a top contender. He has insisted he would not seek a pardon. However, his farewell speech might have been prophetic - or revealing - when he said, "I still see the day when I can remove the cloud that currently surrounds me." He then appeared to call upon God, adding, "I look forward with a glad heart and with confidence in his justice and mercy." However, some people swear he was looking at a portrait of Bush at that moment.
Other potential candidates include Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was convicted of perjury and obstructing the FBI's investigation into the leak of Former CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity. Bush commuted his 30-month sentence last year. A pardon, however, will also let him practice law again. Another one is Bush's 2004 New England campaign chairman James Tobin, indicted in October for lying to the FBI regarding the 2002 plot to jam Democratic Party phones in New Hampshire.
In the days after taking office in 2001, Bush said of the practice of granting Presidential pardons, "Should I decide to grant pardons, I will do so in a fair way. I will have the highest of high standards."
We have seen Bush dramatically lower his standards during his time in office. It therefore might not require too much effort on his part to reach them anymore.
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