03/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

I Beg Your Pardon

In 1973, when Lynn Anderson's voice blanketed America's airwaves with, "I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden," she didn't mean the one at the White House. But a year later, a disgraced President Nixon might have had just that Joe South lyric in mind when he petitioned for, and received, a full pardon from Gerald Ford, his appointed successor.

Presidential pardons, which restore a person's innocence as though no crime were ever committed, were intended by the framers to allow Presidents to let bygones be bygones during periods of national crisis, like the Whiskey Rebellion and the Civil War. But with rare exceptions -- like Jimmy Carter's first act as President, the 1977 amnesty for draft resisters -- those lofty motives have given way to transparent cronyism. (Note to Presidents: this is not what we mean by transparency in government.)

Nixon's pardon of Teamsters chief/mobster Jimmy Hoffa and Ronald Reagan's of George Steinbrenner, who'd made illegal donations to Nixon's 1972 campaign, had nothing to do with national healing and everything to do with rewarding the rich and powerful. (To underscore Reagan's tough-on-crime image, Steinbrenner was forced to admit he did something wrong.)

On his way out in 1993, George H. W. Bush further lowered the bar by granting preemptive clemency to Caspar Weinberger, Elliot Abrams and others about to go on trial on multiple charges relating to the Iran Contra scandal. Bush Sr. didn't claim anyone's innocence, just that those pardoned were "patriots."

A further debasement of the form was Bill Clinton's eleventh-hour pardon of tax-fraud/fugitive Mark Rich, whose ex-wife Denise contributed over a million dollars to the Democrats and to Clinton's Presidential library. Here Clinton was too busy making off with White House furniture to mount a convincing justification.

So what to make of the fact that George W. Bush, on his way out, surprised friends and foes alike by eschewing pardons for a number of rich, high-profile insiders, including a Duke, a Lord and a Scooter? Former Congressman/bribe acceptor Randy "Duke" Cunningham, stock manipulator/billionaire financier Michael Milken, former Cheney chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby and right-wing media tycoon/cash-skimmer/shareholder-defrauder/justice-obstructer Lord Conrad Black were all turned down flat.

These petitioners had the cream of the Republican insider crop behind them. Dick Cheney himself promoted a pardon for Libby, and publicly disagreed with W after it was denied. Milken deployed former Bush administration Solicitor General Ted Olson. Former Republican Congressman and Presidential candidate Duncan Hunter lobbied hard on Cunningham's behalf, while Black preferred working the back hallways of power. "There are alot of people in positions that could help," A Black associate said. "I think if anything happens, it's going to be very quiet."

Cheney made the simplest case, claiming his convicted former aide -- "an outstanding public servant throughout his career" -- was innocent. Other pleadings ran the gamut from good deeds after the fact -- Milken deserves a break because he's helped people since his release from prison -- to an argument right out of Joseph Heller: Cunningham is pardon-worthy because he served his country as a U. S. Congressman. (Never mind that taking bribes stemming from his posts on two powerful Congressional committees was what put him in jail in the first place!)

Why did W resist the pressure? Was it his storied stubbornness? An admirable attack of common sense? Whatever the reasons, the spectacle of a bunch of mega-rich, super-powerful people unable to buy their innocence is a welcome detour on the path to the complete corruption of the Presidential pardon.

Of course, Bush did issue pardons to some unsavory characters: a list on Wikipedia runs to 128, including coke runners, document forgers, people who stole from servicemen and the like.

The road ahead could yield a delicious twist. Granted it's wishful thinking, but what if Bush and company are held accountable for their grave offenses -- say, torture or the attorney general scandal? In that event, one can only hope future Presidents will follow W's example.