The Rule of Law

CARL T. ROWAN

December 30, 1992|By CARL T. ROWAN

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- President Bush's pardons of men convicted or indicted in connection with criminal behavior in the Iran-contra scandal have provoked a sad list of ''justifications'':

* Former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger is ill, and so is his wife. They deserve mercy.

* Mr. Weinberger is a great patriot; and the others pardoned, whether they were right or wrong, thought they were acting out of patriotism.

* It wasn't fair to ''criminalize'' policy differences between the White House and the Congress on issues such as aid to the contras.

* Some of the lawlessness committed by those pardoned was ''Mickey Mouse'' stuff.

* FDR, Ike, JFK and LBJ all ''lied to Congress,'' so why make a big deal out of Ronald Reagan, George Bush or Cap Weinberger telling Congress a little lie or two.

* Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh is an evil man, out of control, who has spent too much money over too many years trying to convict Republicans who for most of his life were his political soul brothers.

These arguments by Mr. Bush and his political allies evade the central fact:

The pardons were a grotesque abuse of power by a president who not only put his aides above the law, but who in effect shielded himself from charges that he behaved unlawfully in the arms-for-hostages, illegal-money-to-the-contras caper.

The men who drew up the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights had many goals in mind, but paramount was the desire to shelter the people from the whims and abuses of kings and others who saw themselves above all laws made by men.

Thomas Jefferson said in the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798: ''Free government is founded . . . to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power.''

It is terribly difficult for the Congress, the Supreme Court or anyone else to ''bind down'' an executive branch when the president says to his minions, ''To hell with the laws. You do what I say. I'll keep you out of prison if you get caught, because I have this unfettered power to pardon.''

That is precisely the message that George Bush has sent forth, and it makes a mockery of every unctuous speech he has ever made about law and order.

Watergate was a special tragedy because so many people went to prison as a result of a devotion to Richard Nixon that led them to break the law.

Some people close to President Bush may yet have to fall on the sword because of political overexuberance in searching Bill Clinton's passport files, or other unlawful activities. Mr. Bush won't be around long enough to pardon everyone.

Almost every American expresses fear of crime -- thinking mostly of some rapist or mugger.

But crime is where you find it. If this society really wants ''law and order,'' it must impose it at the top by rising up against this business of a president pardoning his partners in crime. We must reject the nonsense we're hearing about ''patriots'' and ''trifling lawlessness.''

I can think of myriad crimes that zealots might commit in the name of ''patriotism,'' such as assassinating a president or blowing up a nuclear energy facility. People murder in the name of their ''god.''

There are Americans in court today who stole a turkey or a TV set or something for Christmas and now say it is ''Mickey Mouse'' for society to prosecute them.

We must get tougher in binding down our presidents to acceptance of the fact that they are not above the laws -- even those made by Congresses and courts that they dislike.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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