This week's cover of Time magazine features a close-up of George W. Bush and a sinister Dick Cheney (what else would he be?) peering out from behind him. "Special Report: The Final Days of Bush and Cheney." The title evokes memories of Richard Nixon and the corruption that brought his presidency to a premature end. But what we read about W. in the article itself shows us a man of high moral integrity. It's story of Dick Cheney's campaign in the closing weeks, and even hours, of the Bush years to secure a full pardon for Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby. It's the story of Bush's morally and legally conscientious dealing with the repeated requests from his close friend, the due process he followed, and his principled decisions to decline the request.
Libby was convicted of obstructing justice, perjury, and lying to investigators. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison and fined $250,000. Bush did not pardon Libby, but in June 2007 commuted his sentence, arguing that the prison sentence was an excessive punishment given the fine, the disbarment, and the disgrace were sufficient.
Bush not only noted his "respect for the jury verdict" and the prosecutor, he also emphasized the "harsh punishment" Libby still faced, including a "forever damaged" professional reputation and the "long-lasting" consequences of a felony conviction.
And there were these two sentences: "Our entire system of justice relies on people telling the truth," Bush said. "And if a person does not tell the truth, particularly if he serves in government and holds the public trust, he must be held accountable." Particularly if he serves in government. Bush's allies would say later that the language was intended to send an unmistakable message, internally as well as externally: No one is above the law.
We did not see such concern for the rule of law in the previous administration. I doubt that we will see it under the former Chicago politician and friend of ACORN who currently serves in the White House. But I'm happy to be surprised.
Even as governor of Texas, Bush had been generally suspicious of the pardon system, though he was not opposed to it in principle. "His reluctance stemmed not from a lack of mercy but from his sense that pardons were a rigged game, tilted in favor of offenders with political connections. 'He thought the whole pardon system was completely corrupt,' says a top Bush adviser."
The article supplies an illustration:
On Dec. 23, 2008, Bush announced 19 pardons. No big names. No apparent political sponsors. But one planned pardon went to a Brooklyn, N.Y., developer who had pleaded guilty in the early 2000s to lying to federal housing authorities. After news accounts surfaced that his father had given nearly $30,000 to the Republican Party earlier that year, the White House backpedaled. It didn't help that one of the lawyers who had sought the pardon had once worked in Bush's own counsel's office — exactly the kind of inside favoritism Bush despised. Bush, who had retreated to Camp David for a last family holiday, spent Christmas Eve fielding phone calls about the case. By day's end, he decided to kill the developer's pardon. The experience left him, aides say, even more wary of the process than he was before.
Later, Cheney pressed his boss again for the pardon. Bush set up a meeting at which Cheney could make his case and White House counsel Fred Fielding could make his case against it. Cheney made political arguments about Iraq War opponents targeting Libby because they couldn't get at Bush. He made emotional appeals to not leaving any soldiers on the battlefield. "But Bush pushed past the political dimension. 'Did the jury get it right or wrong?' he asked."
In conversations that followed, two considerations kept coming up: repentance and the truth. "Bush would decide alone. In private, he was bothered by Libby's lack of repentance. But he seemed more riveted by the central issue of the trial: truthfulness. Did Libby lie to prosecutors?"
For President George W. Bush, pardoning someone convicted of a crime by due process of law in the American judicial system was a matter of awesome weight. It carried implications for the rule of law on which our system of liberty rested, and still rests. Thus, what was of ultimate concern to him was the question of truth. Those who are currently in power at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue would serve us and themselves better by trembling more sincerely before that consideration.