Javert Rides Again

JAMES J. KILPATRICK

December 30, 1992|By JAMES J. KILPATRICK

Zealotry always wears an ugly face. The ugliest face around Washington these days is the ugly face of Lawrence Walsh, the vindictive special prosecutor in the case of the Iran-contra affair. This vulture has been deprived of his prey.

By his courageous action on Christmas Eve, President Bush pardoned Caspar Weinberger and five others who had been involved long ago in the trading of arms for hostages. The president's decision was a manifestation of justice at its best. It was morally right in every way.

Prosecutor Walsh, the reincarnation of Victor Hugo's Inspector Javert, is beside himself with anger. Inspector Javert, you will recall, spent his life pursuing Jean Valjean, whose crime was to steal a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving family. The story of ''Les Miserables'' was the stuff of magnificent fiction. Mr. Walsh's obsession became the stuff of despicable fact.

Mr. Weinberger's last-minute escape -- he was to go on trial next Tuesday -- has infuriated the usual howlers. Liberal pundits and Democratic majority leaders are venting their rage. On every side we are hearing hypocritical cries that the president regards the defendants as ''above the law.''

What rubbish! In the midst of the uproar, it may not be amiss to focus on the distinction between law and justice. They are not at all the same thing.

In the matter at hand, it is far from clear that Mr. Weinberger and the others broke any criminal statute at all. The prosecutor has spent $31 million of the taxpayers' money in pursuit of his obsession, and he has come up empty. All that Mr. Walsh had left were various vague charges of obstructing justice and withholding information from Congress.

At bottom, the charges were never criminal; they were entirely political: President Reagan, said his Democratic foes, had used his presidential powers in defiance of Congress. In 1986 he had taken matters into his own hands in an effort to enlist Iran's help in freeing American hostages held in Lebanon. He had arranged for Israel to sell certain U.S. missiles to Iran, and he had diverted proceeds to the aid of the freedom fighters in Nicaragua.

That was the substance of the whole affair. Mr. Reagan handled the matter badly. He had his own obsession -- he wanted desperately to free the hostages -- but he failed to ride herd on the operation. The late Bill Casey, director of the CIA, took over. His associates rode off in all directions. Through an excess of loyalty, the thing got out of hand.

The law of 1986 is clouded with doubt. The Boland Amendments were civil statutes, not criminal statutes. Given the complex facts of the covert affair, the Arms Export Control Act may not have applied.

In any event, the only substantive offense finally charged to Mr. Weinberger is that, in responding to questions put to him by congressional investigators, he denied having taken certain notes when in fact he had taken them. On this flimsy accusation, far removed from the original uproar, Mr. Weinberger has been put to a million dollars in legal expenses. He is 75 years old, in poor health. I know him to be a devoted public servant whose integrity cannot be successfully challenged.

In granting the pardons, President Bush risked the contumely he is now receiving. He knew he would be accused by the likes of Lawrence Walsh of attempting to cover up his own involvement as vice president. To perform an act of compassionate justice, Mr. Bush put his own reputation on the line.

His reputation will survive. By granting the pardons, he sought to close a wound that has festered for nearly seven years. Presidents must act in what they perceive to be the national interest. When laws are unclear, when lawyers sharply disagree, when justice may be served by decisive action, presidents must invoke their undoubted powers.

This was the reasoning of Thomas Jefferson when he approved the Louisiana Purchase nearly 200 years ago. Jefferson felt uneasily that he might be breaking the law. ''There is a difficulty in the acquisition,'' he said, ''which presents a handle to the malcontents among us.'' But he went ahead and did what was right.

Malcontents are still among us. Certain posturing defenders of ''the law'' will always praise Javert and condemn his victim. My own reaction is to condemn Mr. Walsh and praise the president instead.

James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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