Since late 20th century, presidents not as forgiving as predecessors

Presidents are much less forgiving than they used to be. Woodrow Wilson once pardoned a man convicted of killing three people with an ax after a number of “worthy citizens” of high esteem recommended that he do so.
Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s crime was, even the most hardened partisan would have to admit, much less severe than that. But while there are a number of worthy citizens of high esteem pushing for a pardon in his case, too, what isn’t in the former top aide to Vice President Cheney’s favor is that President Bush has been particularly judicious when deciding to grant clemency, even by modern standards.

Libby, who also served as an aide to Bush, was convicted this week on four counts of perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements. Bush told Univision that he planned to stay out of the case until it had legally run its course. Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, said a pardon wasn’t being contemplated.

Some conservatives are pushing the president to pardon Libby before he is sentenced. But a review of Bush’s record as both governor and president shows little precedent for granting a pardon to convicted felons who had not served prison time.

Bush has issued just 113 pardons during his six years in office. A flurry of pardons often comes at the end of a presidency, like they did, controversially, during President Clinton’s final days. But presidents used to issue 100 or more “clemency actions” a year, according to the Justice Department.

During his six years as governor of Texas, Bush granted fewer pardons — just 18 — than any governor had since the 1940s. One of those pardons he came to regret. In 1995, Gov. Bush gave a pardon to Steven Raney, a deputy constable who had a 1988 marijuana conviction. But Raney was later accused of stealing cocaine in a drug bust.
Bush’s father was similarly stingy in pardon-granting. President George H.W. Bush granted only 77 pardons in his one term in office. Clinton, after not granting any pardons in four of his first five years in office, had granted 396 pardons in total by the time he left office.

Those included one of the most controversial ever awarded, to Marc Rich, an international commodities trader who had fled the country while being prosecuted for tax evasion and illegal dealings with Iran during the hostage crisis.

Mark Morris, a University of Miami of Ohio professor who wrote his dissertation on presidential pardons, says the nature of pardons has changed over the years.

“It used to be an act of mercy,” Morris said. “Now, it’s viewed as a political tool.”

Kings and princes were granted pardon power as a way to counter a judicial system that was often cruel and harsh. The pardon followed the colonists to American shores. The Constitution grants the president pardon power with the lone exception of cases involving treason.

If there is a golden age of the presidential pardon, it was the first decades of 20th century. Calvin Coolidge was particularly understanding. He averaged 326 clemency actions a year, according to a paper Morris co-authored with East Carolina University Professor Jody Baumgartner.

President Franklin Roosevelt holds the record for presidential pardons, issuing more than 3,600 during his 12-year tenure.

Wilson is hard to beat for per-year pardon rate: He granted 344 clemency actions annually. That included a pardon issued in the final days of his administration to Thomas M. C. Bram, who had been convicted of killing three people on a ship with an ax, according to professor P.S. Ruckman of Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill., who has written an unpublished book on presidential pardons.

Bram was apparently out of jail at the time. The then-attorney general noted that several “worthy citizens” of high esteem recommended the pardon be granted, Ruckman’s research found.

President Taft infamously pardoned a man many blamed for a financial panic in 1907. Wall Street tycoon Charles Morse claimed to be on his deathbed in jail as he appealed for clemency. Taft granted him a pardon on the recommendation of his attorney general, who some believe was paid off. Morse lived for another 30 years.

Theodore Roosevelt once pardoned a man who had shot another and then dumped the body, minus the head, in a creek, according to Ruckman. His research uncovered other cases of convicted ax murderers, former Nazis, Mafia hit men, and bank robbers subsequently let off the hook by presidential pardons.

Things began to change, however, in the 1960s, when law and order became a central campaign theme, Ruckman said.

“For the first time, crime became a national political issue,” he said.

Presidents since have averaged far fewer than 100 “clemency actions” a year, versus a historical average of 200 a year, according to Morris’s and Baumgartner’s study. (Democrats have traditionally been more forgiving than Republicans, averaging 238 actions a year versus 169.)

Particularly stingy, according to Ruckman’s research, are ex-governors like Bush who then become president.

“They’ve exercised the power and they know the ramifications,” he said.