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The History of Presidential Pardons

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The History of Presidential Pardons


The History of Presidential Pardons

The History of Presidential Pardons

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Even before I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's perjury conviction Tuesday, there was speculation that if he was convicted, President Bush would issue a pardon for him. Presidential pardons are a prerogative that began with another George — Washington — in the country's infancy.


Even before yesterday's conviction of former White House Aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby, there was speculation that if Libby were convicted, President Bush would issue a pardon.

Presidential pardons are a prerogative that began with another George - George Washington - in the country's infancy. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates looked at a few other pardons that have occurred over the years. And here is her report.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: This was probably the most memorable presidential pardon in modern history.

President GERALD FORD: And by these presents do grant a full, free and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he...

BATES: That was President Gerald Ford, who replaced Richard Nixon when the latter left office to avoid being impeached after the Watergate trials. Ford always maintained, and many historians agree, that the country's healing would begin more quickly if Nixon wasn't front and center in the national consciousness.

The option of presidential clemency goes back to George Washington's administration, when he granted amnesty to participants in the tax protest called the Whiskey Rebellion in 1795, 70 years after it occurred. Later, while the nation was still reeling form the aftereffects of its civil war, Andrew Johnson granted a blanket amnesty to soldiers who fought in the Confederate Army. Stanley Kutler is Professor Emeritus of Law at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a nationally recognized expert in the presidency. Professor Kutler says pardons were a holdover from the colony's British law.

Professor STANLEY KUTLER (Law, University of Wisconsin, Madison): The power is absolute, complete plenary, is the word we use.

GRIGSBY-BATES: And it cannot be overturned by Congress or the courts, no matter how controversial the pardon. President Ford pardoned Iva Toguri without an apology in 1977. Toguri was a Japanese-American forced to broadcast as Tokyo Rose when she was trapped in Japan as America entered the war. Records show she was convicted by witnesses who were pressured to perjure themselves because of war hysteria.

In 1999, President Clinton pardoned Henry Flipper, West Point's first black graduate, who was dishonorably discharged in an overt act of racial prejudice. But many pardons have been granted as political conveniences or perhaps as a way to repay a favor. Bill Clinton's pardon of disgraced financier Mark Rich -his wife Denise was a huge Clinton fundraiser - brought howls of indignation from the right. Kutler gives an example of some pardons that brought screams from the left.

Prof. KUTLER: Bush, Sr. pardoned some of the Iran-Contra conspirators, most notably Caspar Weinberger and Elliott Abrams, who today sits on Bush, Jr.'s National Security Council. President Bush pardoned them on the last day of his administration.

GRIGSBY-BATES: Stanley Kutler says Lewis Libby may yet avoid spending time behind bars.

Prof. KUTLER: The task for Libby, of course, to avoid jail is to just keep the legal proceedings alive until the end of the president's term.

GRIGSBY-BATES: The president could issue a pardon sooner. But even if he waits until he's leaving office, the timing is a delicate matter. Stanley Kutler.

Prof. KUTLER: I mean, I strongly believe there will be a pardon. The real question is when.

GRIGSBY-BATES: That's a question he's not alone in wanting answered. Karen Grigsby-Bates, NPR News.

CHADWICK: You know, Madeleine, there are so many great details on this. For instance, Lewis Libby was personally involved in another presidential pardon.

BRAND: Yes. Libby was a lawyer in private practice during the Clinton presidency. He represented fugitive billionaire Mark Rich who was pardoned by Clinton hours before he left the White House in 2001.

CHADWICK: Right, Mark Rich. And he was a very successful commodity trader who was indicted back in 1983 by...

BRAND: Rudy Giuliani, then a federal prosecutor and now...

CHADWICK: A Republican presidential candidate. Anyway, Mr. Rich was indicted for tax evasion and illegal trading with Iran.

BRAND: He fled to Switzerland, where, in spite of his pardon, he remains.

CHADWICK: And he remains true to his name - very, very rich. "Forbes" magazine estimated his wealth last year at $1.5 billion. No word whether or not he helped out with the legal bills of his former counsel, Lewis Libby.

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