WASHINGTON – Moments after President Gerald Ford’s stunning Sunday morning pardon of Richard Nixon in 1974, I encountered a top Ford aide just outside the Cabinet Room.
Asked for my opinion, I replied: “Howard, he just lost the 1976 election.”
At that moment, Nixon’s chief of staff, Gen. Alexander Haig, wandered past and begged to differ with my shortsighted analysis. “He just made his first presidential decision,” Haig corrected.
As history shows, we were both right: The controversial pardon of his predecessor sealed Ford’s defeat by Jimmy Carter, but also helped heal a Watergate-weary nation.
President Bush’s intervention to keep Lewis (Scooter) Libby out of jail may not be treated as kindly by history. And for the short term, he will likely get to relive the Ford experience after the shock of the pardon and see his popularity and moral authority plunge even lower. Republicans fear the odds of the next president being a Democrat have just risen exponentially.
The outraged reaction of Democrats, many of whom stared at their shoes when Bill Clinton’s eleventh-hour pardons of cronies and contributors fouled the Oval Office, was predictable. But some Republicans – including former federal prosecutors aghast at the chilling effect on sentencing guidelines – were also appalled.
“The dirty little secret is that in his own way, Bush has shown as much contempt for the law as Clinton did,” said Curt Smith, a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush.
“We have now witnessed the evisceration of the Bush presidency by its own hand,” lamented a mandarin of the Washington Republican establishment who supported Bush enthusiastically in 2000.
As a practical matter, Bush’s moral standing has been further dissipated by the spectacle of a former law-and-order governor and a president benefiting a convicted felon who used to work for him – particularly after he’d vowed to deal harshly with whoever leaked CIA operative Valerie Plame’s name to the media.
When Libby was nailed for lying about Plame, Bush’s partisans were reduced to arguing lamely that Clinton’s pardons of fugitive financier Marc Rich and others were more craven.
In one sense, the decision isn’t surprising. The Bush clan has always prized loyalty over competence, so voiding a stiff jail sentence for a man who used to be his senior aide as well as Vice President Dick Cheney’s consigliere is wholly in character.
What’s more surprising is the contorted logic of a decision short-circuiting standard legal processes by the chief law enforcement officer of the land. Even Paris Hilton, after all, served some time.
“Thirty months in jail was absolutely excessive,” a senior Republican political operative noted, “but zero is offensive to the average American. Commuting to 60 days in jail would have made this a lot more palatable to the average person.”
There’s no question Bush was totally within his authority to spare Libby. It’s also entirely possible he has shored up his conservative base, openly rebellious over his middle-ground immigration posture.
As Bush’s Supreme Court appointments have proven, he retains significant executive power. The net result of the Libby decision, however, significantly weakens his governing power. Vetoing bills and issuing executive orders are weak substitutes for passing an agenda, and helping Scooter has further depleted Bush’s waning influence.
“He made one of those pure political decisions every president makes that costs you capital,” a Bush confidant who talks with him regularly told the New York Daily News. “The problem is, he didn’t have a lot of capital left to spend.”