President Bush recently pardoned 17 criminals, most convicted of minor offenses and few who served much prison time. What made it noteworthy is that Bush has issued so few pardons as president.
Coming up on six years in office, he has issued only 99 pardons and commutations, making him, as the Associated Press put it, “the stingiest of postwar presidents in this regard.” In their eight-year terms, Bill Clinton issued 457 and Ronald Reagan 406. In four years, George H.W. Bush issued 77 and Jimmy Carter a generous 563. Gerald Ford granted 409 in his shortened term.
Richard Nixon granted 926, a generosity later repaid. Harry Truman and Woodrow Wilson both issued more than 2,000, and Franklin Roosevelt granted 3,687, according to the University of Pittsburgh law school’s Jurist Web site.
Presidential pardons and commutations generally go unnoticed, but can explode into political controversy: Ford’s pardon of Nixon, the first Bush’s pardon of six members of the Reagan administration and Clinton’s dispensing of 140 pardons on his final day in office.
The Justice Department has well-developed guidelines for reviewing and recommending clemency applications. Surely there are more than 99 people in the pipeline who have redeemed themselves and are worthy of forgiveness and the restoration of rights — such as voting and owning firearms — often denied felons.
George W. Bush wasn’t particularly open-handed with pardons as governor of Texas. But he is a second-term president and doesn’t have to worry about political fallout. No rational person would accuse him of being soft on criminals.
The power to grant “pardons and reprieves” is one of the great privileges conferred on presidents by the Constitution. It should not be used indiscriminately, but it should be used generously.