Patriots or Scoundrels?

December 27, 1992

Rather than put the Iran-contra scandal to rest, President Bush has placed it in the sort of political limbo in which it will never die.

His pardons for Caspar Weinberger and five other figures in the Reagan administration conspiracy leave many unresolved questions about high-level complicity, including his own. It reverses convictions or guilty pleas or blocks trials for the former defense secretary and one other. More important, it leaves future government officials to wonder where their obligation ends to obey the law.

Mr. Bush called Mr. Weinberger "a true American patriot." No one doubts that. He advised President Reagan against the Iran-contra adventures, so he is not being punished for bad policy-making. His patriotism and wisdom, though, are beside the point. The only issue before the court would have been whether he had an obligation to disclose valuable information in an official investigation. He did have that duty, particularly since some of his notes pointed to the involvement of President Reagan and then Vice President Bush. He failed in his legal duty, patriotically inspired or not.

Similarly, the others pardoned Christmas Eve were excused by the president because they were patriots, right or wrong. True again, and just as irrelevant. Each was accused of lying to Congress, or withholding information, which is just as damaging to our constitutional system.

The president's misuse of patriotism as grounds for legal pardons -- as opposed to political or even moral forgiveness -- reinforces the conclusion he does not grasp what was involved in the prosecutions by independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh. This was not about "the criminalization of policy differences," as Mr. Bush asserted. It was about possible criminal acts by senior federal officials while carrying out their duties and about their obligation to report truthfully to Congress about them.

In most bitter controversies, there comes a time for healing, as Mr. Bush said. But gestures that put an end to old struggles should come in the context of reconciliation -- most often from a generous victor or compassionate successor. Mr. Bush is neither. President Bill Clinton might have been.

Mr. Bush assures us that we now know everything there is to know about Iran-contra. Even with the release of Mr. Weinberger's notes, doubts will linger whether there has been full disclosure of Mr. Reagan's and Mr. Bush's complicity.

The Constitution gives the president an absolute right of pardon. It is a sound provision, as Mr. Walsh himself acknowledged. Its exercise, as Mr. Walsh also said, is a matter for the president's conscience. By cloaking his decision to pardon Mr. Weinberger and the others in patriotism, Mr. Bush has left a lingering doubt whether it is once again the last refuge for scoundrels.


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