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12.01.08

The Case for Pardons

From Martha Stewart to anyone ever convicted by Eliot Spitzer, why Bush—the compassionate conservative—should be more liberal about letting felons off the hook.

Congressional Democrats are starting to worry that George W. Bush might get away with it. A few, including New York congressman Jerry Nadler, have convinced themselves that in the next six weeks Bush will preemptively pardon members of his administration who may have committed crimes.

Nadler and his fellow Bush haters can relax. Bush won't do any such thing. Unfortunately.

How do we know this? Because Bush hates pardons. Though he recently described himself “as somebody who liberated 50 million people,” he wasn't referring to his fellow Americans. Over the past eight years, Bush has granted a total of just 171 pardons, far fewer than any modern two-term president. Bill Clinton, by contrast, pardoned 140 people on a single day at the end of his last term. 

A pardon is the least they owe Scooter Libby. Also, it would drive Paul Krugman even crazier than he is now.

Which is precisely the problem: Clinton went to one extreme – accepting favors to exonerate Marc Rich, pardoning Puerto Rican terrorists. Bush responded by going to the other. Typical political overcorrection, but a shame nonetheless. Pardons aren't illegitimate. They're constitutional (Article II, Section 2). They're also compassionate. We need more of them.

Who should get pardoned? Contrary to myth, there aren't a lot of innocent people on death row. But there are a quite a few guilty people who ought to be forgiven. Last week, for example, Bush pardoned a 50-year-old Missouri farmer named Leslie Owen Collier. In 1995, Collier accidentally poisoned three bald eagles. An indisputably solid citizen, Collier was horrified by the birds’ death. Some self-aggrandizing prosecutor went after him anyway, and he wound up a felon. The conviction overshadowed Collier’s life. Bush fixed it in an instant.

There are thousands of Leslie Colliers out there. The trick is bringing them to the attention of the White House. That’s not easy. Typically, you've got to know someone who knows someone.

Consider the case of imprisoned rapper John Forte, whose sentence Bush recently commuted. In 2000, Forte, who had produced albums for the Fugees and once toured with Wyclef Jean, was busted at Newark Airport carrying 31 pounds of cocaine. He wound up with 14-year prison term. He'd likely still be there, but for the fact he'd gone to Exeter with Carly Simon’s son, Ben, and had visited the Simon family spread on Martha’s Vineyard .

A few years ago, Ben’s mom collaborated on a country song with Sen. Orrin Hatch and told him about Forte’s case. Hatch called the White House. Forte was sprung.

So because your boarding school friend’s mom finds herself in a recording studio with a U.S. senator, you get out of jail early. Whatever else it is, that’s not an efficient way to dispense justice. The incoming president ought to set up a well-staffed office of investigators at the Justice Department whose only task is to find felons worthy of pardon.

In the meantime, Bush should grant mercy to some obvious candidates:

Edwin Edwards. The former Louisiana governor has been in prison for more than six years on federal racketeering charges. Yes, he did it, and probably a lot more. No, he’s not likely to be very penitent when he gets out. But Edwards is also 81 years old, and one of the most entertaining political figures in American history. Plus, he prevented David Duke from reaching statewide office. He won't hurt anyone. Let him go.

Jim Traficant. As long as Edwards is getting out, why not the disgraced congressman from Youngstown? Congress has been a dull place since he and his possum-shaped wig left for federal prison.

Martha Stewart. Sure she’s annoying, but that’s not a crime—or it shouldn't be anyway. Stewart went to jail mostly because she was famous, as a lesson to the rest of us. That’s not a good reason. Stand on principle. Clear her name.

Everyone ever convicted by Elliot Spitzer. Long before he became the governor who overpaid hookers, Spitzer was the man who prosecuted cases solely for their publicity value, in order to advance his own political career. His targets must be considered victims, even the guilty ones. Absolve them, not least as a warning to budding Spitzers everywhere, and unfortunately there are many.

Webster Hubbell. The former mayor of Little Rock came to Washington to work in his close friend Bill Clinton’s justice department. He left to go to prison for mail fraud and tax evasion. Though he could have hurt the Clintons in a thousand ways, Hubbell has remained silent all these years. Yet in a classic case of unrequited loyalty, Clinton refused to pardon him, or even say a good word on his behalf. Hubbell’s still in Washington, and still tainted by his convictions. Bush ought to do what Clinton should have done.

Scooter Libby. For the same reason: It’s immoral to let people who work for you suffer for your sins. Whatever Libby did, he did on behalf of his superiors. A pardon is the least they owe him. Also, it would drive Paul Krugman crazy. Really crazy. Even crazier than he is now.

Non-violent drug felons. Why not find six or seven hundred of them, maybe a thousand, people who screwed up, but who have turned their lives around and done something useful since. Not the usual loudmouth, addict-turned-counselor/evangelist types, but the quiet ones who go to work every day and raise decent children. They're out there. Reward their perseverance and self-control. Pardon them.

Tucker Carlson is a senior political correspondent at MSNBC. He joined the network in February 2005 from CNN, hosting The Situation with Tucker Carlson and Tucker.