March 18, 2005
By Gene C. Gerard
White House announced last week that President Bush issued pardons
to eight individuals. Their offenses included arson on an Indian
reservation, disposing of stolen explosives, theft of government
property, and bootlegging, among other crimes.
During his first term, Mr. Bush issued a mere 31 pardons and sentence
commutations. This is less than any modern president. In fact, you
have to go back to Zachary Taylor, twelfth president of the United
States, to find a similar number. President Taylor granted only
38 pardons, but it should also be noted that he served barely 18
months before his untimely death in 1850.
The president's power to grant pardons was clearly enshrined in
the United States Constitution, Article II, Section 2: "The
President... shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for
offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment."
Although the Framers of the Constitution debated clemency, it was
not viewed as a controversial idea. There was some debate over making
presidential pardons subject to the consent of the Senate, though
this was quickly rejected.
As the Founding Fathers were hammering out the details of the
Constitution in Philadelphia, they seem to have essentially agreed
that the privilege to exercise mercy, on which the power to issue
pardons was founded, could be most easily granted by a single person,
rather than a legislative body or even judges. Alexander Hamilton,
in Federalist Number 74, wrote "... one man appears to be a
more eligible dispenser of the mercy of the government than a body
Over the years, presidents have issued pardons to and commuted
the sentences of a motley band of crooks, criminals, and scoundrels.
President George Washington gave amnesty to the instigators of the
Whiskey Rebellion, while President Johnson did the same for Confederate
rebels. President Harding pardoned fiery Socialist labor leader
and convicted felon Eugene V. Debs. President Nixon issued a commutation
to organized crime figure Jimmy Hoffa, only to be pardoned himself
by President Ford following the Watergate fiasco.
President Carter gave amnesty to the Vietnam War draft resisters,
and commuted the sentence of bank robber Patty Hearst. President
Reagan issued a pardon to George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees
for illegal campaign contributions he made in the 1960s. President
George Bush, Sr. pardoned Iran Contra scandal figure Caspar Weinberger.
President Clinton infamously pardoned fugitive financier Mark Rich,
whose wife had been a major contributor to the Democratic National
Franklin D. Roosevelt issued the most pardons and commutations
of any president. Over the course of his four terms, he issued 3,687.
By contrast, George Washington issued the least, only 16. Two presidents
in American history, William Henry Harrison and James Garfield,
chose not to use their power to pardon.
President Bush is now notable for issuing so few pardons and sentence
commutations. In comparison to his first-term record of 31, Mr.
Clinton averaged 228 during each of his administrations. Mr. Bush's
father issued 77 during his term. Mr. Reagan averaged 203 during
each of his administrations. Mr. Carter issued 566, while Mr. Ford
issued 409. Mr. Nixon averaged 463 during each of his terms.
During his time as Governor of Texas, Mr. Bush issued fewer pardons
than any other Governor in Texas since the 1940s. He issued only
16, compared to 70 for Ann Richards, his immediate predecessor.
When questioned about his low number of pardons in an interview
with Austin's Star-Telegram newspaper, then Governor Bush suggested
that it had less to do with any particular political philosophy,
and more to do with his experience with one pardon he issued. He
pardoned an individual in 1995 for a marijuana conviction, and only
a few months later the individual was arrested for cocaine possession.
Today, it's hard to think of President Bush apart from his political
philosophy of "Compassionate Conservatism." After all,
he's gone out of his way to promote the concept. Given that the
Founding Fathers gave the presidency the power to pardon as a means
of demonstrating the government's mercy, you would think that President
Bush would have made good use of it. And while it's difficult to
think of compassion in numerical terms, issuing a paltry 39 pardons
and commutations doesn't seem very compassionate.