To Forgive Would Be Divine

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How could George W. Bush look like a healer and still knock some of the spring out of Bill Clinton's step, the wind out of his victory tour and a zero off his book advance? Pardon him, as soon as possible. With special counsel Robert Ray--Ken Starr's tenacious successor--now weighing whether to indict Clinton for obstruction of justice, Bush might want to pre-empt Ray and pardon Clinton before any indictment. Bush could wrest the Bible out of William Rehnquist's hands, turn to an appropriate Psalm of forgiveness and make it the heart of his Inaugural Address. No one remembers Inaugural speeches anyway (can you quote one other than Kennedy's?), and Bush, who is not given to flights of rhetoric, could make his speech memorable simply by wrapping it around a pardon.

It's easy to see why Bush would hesitate to let the guy off the hook. Doing so would really tick off his right wing, which has held on to the prosecution of Clinton like a dog to a postman's leg. Pardoning Nixon ruined Gerald Ford's election chances. The Wall Street Journal editorial page might never get over it. And it might be really, really hard to do, now that Clinton has spent the week making headlines by taunting Bush at every stop on his farewell tour, lauding the "Gore victory," suggesting that Bush won by stopping the Florida recount--and, for good measure, saying he had some untold jokes about Bush's failed nominee for Labor Secretary that would leave his audience "howling in the aisle." A pardon? How about a punch in the nose?

Nor does Bush want to give Clinton one more occasion to gloat. Each time Clinton eludes the noose, he practically nominates himself for a Nobel Prize for defending the Constitution. As he told Esquire magazine, "They"--we all know who "they" are--have "spent over $100 million on these special prosecutors and congressional investigations...and they have yet to come up with one example of official misconduct in office--not one." What's more, he said, "they" owe the country an apology.

O.K., so Clinton isn't going to make it easy for Bush. But this is not about Clinton, it's about Bush--and there's less downside than meets the eye. Bush has already fed the right wing with the antigay, antiabortion, anti-affirmative action John Ashcroft and with Gale Norton, who would open the South Lawn to drilling if she could. The chattering class on the right might howl for a while, but it's not going to abandon Bush unless he abandons tax cuts. And Ford isn't an apt comparison. Some thought, without evidence, that Ford had cut a deal with Nixon, and Nixon haters, with nothing but the bloodless Watergate hearings to feast on, felt they had not got all their licks in.

Until now, Bush has wisely been at pains to avoid being seen as part of the get-Clinton posse. The impeachment hunt produced more casualties among the pursuers than among the prey, returning many unwillingly to private life. In the House that impeached him, Republicans lost two seats. In the Senate they went from five up to deuce. Clinton's wife won a seat there.

Bush must know there's no hook big enough to yank Bubba entirely off the stage, but continuing to prosecute him would only give him a brighter spotlight. TV loves nothing more than someone famous in the docket. During a Clinton State of the Union speech, the networks kept a crawl on the bottom of the screen with updates on the O.J. jury deliberations. Clinton's trial would be a crawl on the bottom of the screen of the Bush presidency. And for what? Is there a negative about Clinton yet to be established, a pound of flesh left to be extracted, a point about the mysterious Clinton marriage left to make?

Bush needn't worry that a pardon would move impeachment to the second paragraph of Clinton's bio. On the contrary, it would seal the Nixon comparison with Clinton the only other President to be pardoned. And it would make Bush seem more statesmanlike. Even among those who don't think Clinton has suffered enough, there are many who think there's been enough suffering to go around. In varying forms, every President ends up with something he needs to seek forgiveness for--and from the whole country, not just from those who voted for him. Those who have given forgiveness are more likely to get it.

If Bush still doubts that a pardon would be a big win, he should look at Clinton's reaction to the idea: "I wouldn't ask for it. I don't think it would be necessary" and "I don't want one." Some Republicans may think he's doing his best Br'er Rabbit imitation. Those close to him say no, he actually believes Ray will pounce as soon as the moving van pulls away from the White House. Clinton prefers to take his chances fighting, as he has so many times before. One reason is that an overwhelmingly Democratic Washington jury is not likely to convict him (remember, even a Republican Senate didn't). But there's a more compelling, unspoken reason he doesn't want Bush's get-out-of-jail-free card. A pardon is the one thing you can't weasel out of. It carries with it the unmistakable implication of guilt, yet there's no precedent for refusing one. Think about it. To the more sophisticated Republicans, Bush could prove a hero for coming closer than anyone else has to nailing Clinton.