It sure is nice to have friends in high places. The smug look that Caspar W. Weinberger '38 gave reporters at his post-pardon press conference says it all. Cap's old friend George Bush got him off the hook before his trial on charges of lying to Congress even began.
Five other Reagan administration officials had their convictions stricken from the record in the same gesture of Christmas goodwill. These five pardons were a sleazy post-election move, but Weinberger's pardon is a blatant perversion of justice that shows President Bush's disregard for due process.
No one will ever know whether or not Weinberger lied to Congress, even though a grand jury concluded there is reason to believe that he did. There is an inherent paradox in pardoning a suspect before he or she has been convicted of a crime. Semantically, a pardon cannot exist without an accompanying misdeed. A pardon is meant to be the last word on a case--a final chance at leniency. In Caspar Weinberger's case, the pardon is the first word.
President Bush has maintained that he is merely saving Weinberger the trouble of a long and arduous trial. Is Bush assuming that Weinberger is guilty? He seems to feel that, with or without a trial, the result will be the same--a presidential pardon. However, Bush cannot make this argument because a trial would have run well into Bill Clinton's presidency. Clinton, a Democrat, would be less sympathetic to Weinberger's problems.
The pardons have serious imputations on the integrity of President Bush. He took advantage of his waning power to help out a few friends suspected or convicted of some extremely ignominious crimes. By avoiding a Weinberger trial, the lame duck president may be saving his own skin from testimony that could incriminate him.
In five of the cases, the men involved had already been convicted. Former National Security Adviser Robert F. McFarlane and aide Lyn Nofziger had been found guilty of perjury and lying to Congress. Yet their pardons are still on the edge of acceptability. Like President Ford's pardons of Watergate criminals, these pardons, however abhorrent, must be endured by law. Weinberger's pardon seems such an anomaly that it cannot be allowed to go unquestioned.
Few courses of action are open to a dissatisfied public. No precedent exists for the overturning of a presidential pardon. According to Harvard Government Professor Gary King, there is "no standard way" to reverse a pardon. "The Supreme Court technically could come up with some convoluted logic," King said, but there is no official recourse or established jurisdiction for such a challenge.
Why didn't Bush show his true colors and make the pardons before the election? Obviously, he anticipated that voters would see him as a servant to cronyism. It is still unclear whether the initiative for the pardons came from Bush himself, from aides, or from friends in the last administration. Now that he has lost the election, Bush has nothing to lose except a very slim chance in 1996.
Bush has also decided to release his personal notes from the Irangate era. Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh is right to ask why Bush had not handed over all his files back in 1986, when the first investigative proceedings began in the Senate. Bush also asked for a copy of his sworn testimony from the Senate hearings before he gave Walsh's office his notes. Did Bush want to check the details of his notes against his statement? Why did the president need to get his story straight if both the statement and the notes were six years old?
Walsh is certainly not the most loved figure in Washington. He has been sniffing at administration officials' garbage for the last six years at high public expense. But perhaps the vigorous work that made him unpopular would not have been necessary if officials had been a little more forthcoming. If all the notes and papers had been in six years ago, time and taxpayers' money would undoubtedly have been saved.
Accountability must inevitably lay with President Bush. There is still time to impeach him, and he can always be brought to trial when he returns to private life. In the absence of Weinberger's trial, Bush's own notes may still lead to prosecution if he has not been careful enough in this latest release of facts. Lawrence Walsh much inevitably remain on the payroll until he finally gets to the bottom of this pit of deception.