Fallout from the Libby Commutation? President Bush's decision to commute the sentence of Vice President Cheney's former top aide was controversial. But the president's poll numbers are so low that it's unclear whether the move will have any long-term repercussions — especially for the Republicans who supported the action.
NPR logo Fallout from the Libby Commutation?

Fallout from the Libby Commutation?

No, this is not really a button for Scooter. Pardon me. hide caption

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President Ford's pardon of his predecessor helped pave the way to his defeat in 1976. hide caption

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Congressman Schmitz was a third-party presidential candidate in 1972, attacking Nixon from the right. hide caption

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Fifty-five years ago today, the Progressive Party includes a black woman on its presidential ticket — the first time ever that an African-American woman runs for the VP slot. hide caption

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It's a sign of the times, I guess, that we weren't especially surprised by President Bush's decision to commute the sentence of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, was about to begin a 30-month prison sentence, having been convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. Those charges stemmed from the investigation into the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity.

Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, says he was "outraged" by the decision, and he probably was. Republican presidential candidates, for the most part, agreed with the action, and they probably do.

Given that President Bush's approval ratings can't fall much lower, the real question is whether this story has any legs.

There have been lots of comparisons to President Ford's pardon of his predecessor, Richard Nixon, for crimes he may have committed during Watergate. But Ford was not a lame duck in September 1974 – he still had a presidential race to compete in – and it was the pardon, more than anything else, that spelled his defeat in 1976.

Bush, on the other hand, has 18 months to go in his presidency. If there is a political price to pay for the commutation of Libby's sentence, it would be felt by the Republican candidates in 2008. But I don't see this resonating into next year.

Another famous pardon, of course, was the first President Bush's decision, on Christmas Eve, 1992, to pardon former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. But Bush was already a month away from leaving the White House, having lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton.

Similarly, Clinton, at the end of his presidency, pardoned Marc Rich, a financier who fled the U.S. following his indictment for tax fraud (and whose ex-wife was a Clinton contributor). Both pardons were extremely unpopular, but ultimately, Bush and Clinton were the lamest of lame ducks, and the practical political fallout was nil.

By the way, did you know that Lewis Libby represented Marc Rich from 1985-2000? It's true! Some things are too delicious to make up.

From the mailbag:

Lawrence Jones, Conifer, Colo.: "I'm struck by the irony that under Bush, some people are imprisoned forever without due process of law, while others — who receive due process of law and are found guilty — are set free."

Joseph Dinkins, London, England: "Where do Bill and Hillary Clinton get the nerve to criticize the Bush decision to commute Lewis Libby's sentence, given the shameless pardon Bill gave to Marc Rich?"

Dan Fantore, Farmington Hills, Mich.: "Now that Bush has agreed with Vice President Cheney's request to keep Scooter Libby out of jail, will Bush now require Cheney to resign as a quid pro quo? It seems like it could create a silk purse out of a pig's ear."

Lauren Beth Cohen, Fairfax, Va.: "Why put Lewis Libby in prison and allow Richard Armitage, the person who leaked Valerie Plame's identity, to go unpunished?"

Gary Brady, Fresno, Calif.: "This is just another example of the rampant lawlessness in the Bush administration. It's time to seriously discuss impeachment."

Scott Roberts: "If convicted, what do you think of the chances of a presidential pardon for Congressman William Jefferson?

Before we get to this week's questions, a trivia question for you:

BORN (AND DIED) ON THE FOURTH OF JULY: Everyone – well, nearly everyone – knows that both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died hours apart on July 4, 1826. But what other president died on July 4th? And what president was born on this day? Answers below.

Q: How far in the leadership did Dick Cheney get when he was a member of the House? – Michael Crosby, Indianapolis, Ind.

A: Cheney's rapid rise in the House GOP leadership is a case of what might-have-been. As chief of staff in President Ford's White House, Cheney already had a national reputation when he was first elected to Congress in 1978. After one term, he became chair of the House GOP Policy Committee. In 1987, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-NY), seeking his party's presidential nomination, gave up his post as Conference Committee chair, the No. 3 spot in the leadership; Cheney won the position unopposed. The following year, House Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-MS), anxious to move up but blocked by Minority Leader Bob Michel, decided to leave the House and run for the Senate. Cheney was elected Whip without opposition.

It seemed clear that Cheney was on the path of becoming Speaker of the House — if the Republicans could manage to win a majority of the seats. But in early 1989, after the Senate rejected President George H.W. Bush's nomination of former Texas Sen. John Tower as his secretary of defense, Bush named Cheney to the Cabinet post. Newt Gingrich of Georgia was elected Whip to succeed Cheney. And it was Gingrich who became speaker when the GOP won control in the 1994 elections.

So, no speakership for Dick Cheney. Instead, he wound up as vice president — the most powerful and influential vice president in history.

Q: Last year, Claire McCaskill (D-MO) defeated Sen. Jim Talent (R), who had defeated appointed Sen. Jean Carnahan (D) in 2002. Is this the first time a Senate seat changed from a female incumbent to a male challenger, who in turn lost to a female challenger? – Drew Pritt, Little Rock, Ark.

A: An odd trivia question, but the answer is yes. Here's even more trivia: Only once in history did a female senator succeed another woman, and that occurred in Nebraska in 1954.

On April 12 of that year, Sen. Dwight Griswold (R) died. Gov. Robert Crosby (R), who was already running for the Senate seat, named veteran GOP activist Eva Bowring to fill the vacancy and serve, according to a peculiarity in state law, only until November – not until the term was to expire, in January. That necessitated a special election for the two-month term that would go from November '54 to January '55. Bowring declined to run in the special election, which was won by another female party activist, Hazel Abel. (An uneventful two months for Abel? Hardly. The lame-duck session dealt with the ultimate condemnation of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy. And Abel, who led the Senate alphabetically, was the first to cast her vote.)

Q: In your list of significant third-party and independent presidential candidates (see June 20 column), I noticed that you listed two candidates who received 1.1 million votes – Strom Thurmond and Henry Wallace, both from 1948. Here's one more presidential candidate who reached that total: John G. Schmitz, the 1972 American Party candidate, who won 1,099,482 votes nationwide. – John Olsen, Ankeny, Iowa

A: Schmitz became an unlikely presidential candidate following an even more unlikely loss of the House seat he had held for one term. A member of the right-wing John Birch Society, Schmitz was a strong and relentless critic of President Nixon. (Schmitz once said that what upset him most about Nixon's trip to Communist China was that Nixon came back.) Even though Schmitz's district was quite conservative, the criticism turned off many voters, and he was defeated in the June '72 primary. Two months later, the American Party – a remnant of George Wallace's 1968 American Independent Party – nominated Schmitz as its presidential candidate.

Schmitz did receive just about the same number of votes nationwide as Thurmond and Henry Wallace did in '48. But their percentage of the vote was 2.4 percent each; Schmitz's was 1.4 percent.

ANSWER TO INDEPENDENCE TRIVIA: James Monroe, the fifth president, also died on July 4, in 1831. And the 30th president, Calvin Coolidge, was born on the Fourth of July in 1872.

DECLARING OUR INDEPENDENCE: No "Political Junkie" segment this Wednesday on NPR's Talk of the Nation. We return next week. Sadly, there will be an episode of our "It's All Politics" podcast episode, which can be downloaded here.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state. *********

This Day in Campaign History: At its national convention in Chicago, the Progressive Party nominates Vincent Hallinan of California for president and Charlotta Bass of New York for vice president. Bass becomes the first African-American woman to run for VP (July 5, 1952).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org