WASHINGTON — The spectacular pardon or reprieve has become a reliable end-of-presidency event. As he was about to leave office in 1992, George H.W. Bush pardoned former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and other officials convicted in the Iran-contra affair.
Six years ago, during his final hours in the White House, Bill Clinton pardoned fugitive financier Marc Rich, whose ex-wife Denise had given generously to Clinton’s campaigns and to his presidential library.
The most famous case, President Ford’s pardon of former President Nixon, was a presidency-ending event in another sense — it led directly to Ford’s defeat in the 1976 election.
President Bush’s commutation of the 30-month prison sentence of former vice presidential aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby fit the pattern set by his predecessors.
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And the reaction to these acts of clemency had a familiar ring.
Compare “the arrogance of this administration's disdain for the law and its belief it operates with impunity are breathtaking” to the statement that the president “will never live down the arrogance of his final departure.”Video: Bush commutes Libby’s sentence
'Arrogance' then and now
The first “arrogance” quote came Monday from Democratic presidential contender Bill Richardson. The second quote came from Jim Webb, now the Democratic senator from Virginia, criticizing Clinton’s pardon of Rich in an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal in 2001.
On Monday, Democratic presidential contender Sen. Joe Biden called on “all Americans to flood the White House with phone calls tomorrow expressing their outrage over this blatant disregard for the rule of law.”
Flooding the switchboards with outrage did seem to work last week in persuading senators to kill the immigration bill that Bush supported.
But in the Libby case, the deed, now done, can not be undone. The Constitution allows Congress no remedy, no repeal of a presidential pardon or commutation.
After Ford pardoned Nixon, then-Sen. Walter Mondale, D-Minn., proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would have allowed a pardon to be over-ridden by a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate.
Some in Congress revived that idea in 2001 after Clinton’s pardon of Rich and others. But in a week or two the fury subsided and the idea was forgotten.
Not a pardon
For those members of Congress who voiced shock or disappointment Monday, it was no solace that Bush only commuted Libby’s sentence.
Bush did not pardon Libby, thus making him innocent in the eyes of the law. Instead he acknowledged his offense and erased his prison sentence as excessive.
Impeachment remains a possibility, but impeachment of whom?
The impeachment movement is a house divided against itself, with some, such as Democratic presidential contender Rep. Dennis Kucinich pushing for impeachment of Vice President Cheney, while others such as Tom Hughes, head of Democracy for America, the group founded by Howard Dean, calling for impeachment of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “majority makers” — the two dozen freshman Democrats from Republican-leaning districts — have shown no interest in the impeachment of Cheney or anyone else.
Three freshman Democrats have signed on to Kucinich’s impeachment resolution, but they come from the Democratic bastions of Minneapolis, Minn., Brooklyn, N.Y., and DeKalb County, Ga.
Cheney under greater scrutiny?
Left-of-center blogger Jane Hamsher called the commutation "nothing less than obstruction of justice and the latest chapter in the criminal conspiracy that has sought to cover up the administration's tracks."
She said "the impeach Cheney impetus may be energized in the long run. During the Libby trial, (special prosecutor) Patrick Fitzgerald said there was a cloud over the Vice President that would not go away because Scooter Libby was obstructing the investigation."
She added, "Since George Bush has now ensured that Scooter Libby will not need to be forthright with the Special Counsel to avoid jail time, congressional investigation is the only recourse available to hold Dick Cheney accountable. I think that is something that the public wants and a responsibility that members of Congress should take very seriously."
Most of the reaction from Democratic congressional leaders was milder than Hamsher's, with House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer simply calling Bush's action "very disappointing."
Democratic presidential contender John Edwards concluded in his statement Monday Bush was “clinically incapable of understanding that mistakes have consequences.”
Whether or not the act of clemency was a mistake, it seems unlikely to have consequences for Bush himself.
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