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George Bush's parting Christmas gift to the nation - his pardon of six former holders of high executive office who played major roles in the Irancontra mess - was welcomed, of course, by the beneficiaries and their circle of admirers. But most of the rest of us were wishing we could take it back. And "us," for once, includes most of the pundits, editorial writers, and columnists, as well as the average person on the street.

Why did he do it? Bush wrapped himself in the genteel, compassionate cloak of noblesse oblige acquired at birth by patricians of his ilk. Cynics see a simple desire to save his own skin from the special prosecutor. The truth, probably somewhere in between, doesn't matter, though. What matters, as many have pointed out, is the message these pardons send: It's okay for the holders of high office to think themselves above the law.

In this case, that means: If they act secretly in the service of a President conducting foreign-policy initiatives specifically forbidden by Congress, if they get caught, if they cover up for each other and for the President, if they lie about it to Congress, then the President or his successor will pardon them - will, in fact, put them where the law can't reach.

Whether that's above the law or below it or just plain outside it doesn't matter either. But it's flatly unacceptable in a nation that is supposed to be subject to the rule of democratically enacted law.

No one disputes Bush's legal right to do what he did; the Constitution is clear on his pardon power. What's disputed is his judgment in exercising it. And what's grotesque is all the nonsense that accompanied the action.

In granting the pardons, President Bush invoked the "healing tradition" of Presidential pardons granted at the end of wars - James Madison's pardon of War of 1812 pirates, Harry Truman's and Jimmy Carter's pardons of draft evaders. What war was Bush talking about? The Cold War, of course. But Garry Wills, writing in The Washington Post a couple of days after Christmas, has a better answer to the question. "The war of the executive branch against the legislative branch," he says.

In granting the pardons, President Bush excused his six "patriots" by saying their legal troubles were simply a matter of a "criminalization of policy differences." There was a policy difference, of course; it was resolved on the floors of Congress. The result: Selling arms to Iran was illegal; arming the Nicaraguan contras was illegal. And more to the point, lying about it all to Congress was illegal.

In granting the pardons, Bush responded to the widespread whispering on the right that he lacked the "courage" to resolve the Iran-contra scandal. Elliot Abrams, one of the convicted but pardoned men, had been openly complaining about the "cowardice" of Ronald Reagan in this matter. Bush's action prompted Senator Bob Dole to hail it as "an act of Christmas Eve courage and compassion." Comparable, in a way, to the courage and compassion of the Christmas bombing of Hanoi a generation ago.

In granting the pardons, Bush expected reactions. He didn't like the ones he saw in the press and called them "stupid" and "frivolous." He probably felt better about winning the approbation of Les Aspin, newly appointed to the post of Secretary of Defense, the same post held by chief pardonee Caspar Weinberger.

President-elect Bill Clinton has made a lot of noise about ethics, and promises his Administration will be better than his predecessors'. There's one promise he hasn't made yet but should: He should tell Les Aspin and the rest of his appointees that he won't tolerate secret or illegal "policy differences" with the people.

And if there are, there won't be any pardons.
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Title Annotation:Bush pardons Iran-Contra defendants
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Feb 1, 1993
Previous Article:Learning from Learnfare.
Next Article:Colombian blood and lies.

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