Jim Lehrer talks with presidential historians about the ongoing House probe into the Clinton pardons.
JIM LEHRER: Now some historical perspective on presidential pardons from presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, journalist and author Haynes Johnson, and historian and presidential biographer Richard Norton Smith. He's the director of the Gerald Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Michael, have there ever been Congressional investigations or pardons like this?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Nothing exactly like this, Jim. But probably the closest in modern times was 1974. Gerald Ford, a month after Richard Nixon resigned, got up on a Sunday morning, abruptly surprised even most of his own staff by saying he was pardoning Richard Nixon. There was an enormous storm. The fiercest critics said perhaps Ford traded the... said you know, to Nixon, I'll pardon you -- if you make me president, I'll give you a pardon. So there was a lot of suspicion. Ford did right thing. He said to Congress, "look, I'll come up to Capitol Hill, very unprecedented. I'll stay as long as you need, ask me everything you want," which he did. It cleared the air somewhat. But in 1976 when Ford ran against Jimmy Carter, perhaps one of the reasons why he lost that election was lingering resentment about the Nixon pardon. I should say a quarter century later, most historians think that it was the right thing to do.
JIM LEHRER: Richard, refresh our memories on the storm that followed that pardon.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, Michael is absolutely right -- in terms of the uproar that took place and remember, this was a country that had just been through Watergate, trust in government and government institutions and the White House above all was at an all-time low. Gerald Ford's Gallup Poll rating dropped over 30 points overnight. To this day, it is the largest single drop ever recorded. But I have to tell you, as someone who's been associated with President Ford for a number of years, it's nice to be talking about someone else's pardons for a change. And the fact is, you know, there is a long and honorable tradition of controversial presidential pardons.
Back at the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was savagely denounced when he pardoned all but 39 of 303 Native Americans who had taken part in an armed uprising in Minnesota. The senior Senator of Minnesota, in fact, actually called for Lincoln's death. Warren Harding, whose presidency had few other highlights, showed both compassion and courage when he did something Woodrow Wilson couldn't do or wouldn't do, he pardoned Eugene Debs, the great socialist leader whose crime had been to oppose U.S. participation in World War I -- then he invited to the White House for a get acquainted chat. The distinction is -- for all of those pardons, including the Ford pardon, there were people then who could dispute the president's actions, who could debate them, who could question them. Very few people really, however, question the motives behind those actions. And that's really the problem with these Clinton pardons. We have yet to hear a plausible case that has been made for the Rich pardon, the Vignali pardon and others.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, do you read the history of pardons the same way, that this is the first time the motives for the pardon have been called into question this severely?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think to some extent, the motives of Mr. Bush, Sr., were called into question when he pardoned Cap Weinberger and some of the Iran-Contra people, some people claiming there might have been some self-serving act. But I do agree with Richard that there's a different category in these pardons from most of the pardons in history.
When old Alexander Hamilton was talking about the pardoning power, he thought that the good part of having the president have this power would be that if there were insurrections or rebellions, it could put to rest difficult periods in our history and let us go on with tranquility. So, for example, when George Washington pardoned those whiskey rebellion characters who were against the excise tax, it seemed to put that problem behind us, even though there was a controversy at the time. Similarly, when Andrew Johnson and Abraham Lincoln pardoned the Confederates and allowed them to vote, it was an attempt to put the Civil War behind us. One could even argue that Ford was attempting to put the whole Watergate behind us by pardoning Mr. Nixon.
What's different and sadder in some ways about this pardon controversy, there's no way that we could argue that it does the country any good. I mean these other presidents, for however controversial their pardons were, thought they were issuing them to do something for the country in a certain way -- these, because they deal with fugitives, cocaine dealers, always there have been pardons like that -- but the controversies have been around these more political ones than now. I'd almost rather that we were talking about something larger -- about the country's history. It seems so much of our attention in these last years has been on more sordid matters. We keep getting dragged down, and that makes me sad. I'd rather have these older historical battles to be fighting.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Haynes, much has been said and debated about whether or not Congress should be doing what it did today. How do you feel about that?
HAYNES JOHNSON: We should. We have two colliding powers here. The Congress has the absolute power. We talk about the president has the absolute power to pardon. The Congress has the absolute power to investigate. And if it thinks something is wrong, they ought to look at it, correct it. They may make mistakes. They may have terrible hearings, they may go out of control -- Joe McCarthy hunting Communists. But they have the right to do that to educate us, the citizens, to remedy it. The president also has the absolute power. It's a very weak office, Jim, as we all know. He can't raise armies, he can't declare war. He can't even get his nominees through unless the Congress approves. But the one thing he does have the to do absolutely is pardon someone like a monarchal gift. I pardon you, I absolve you from all sins and so forth and crimes and commissions. So the Congress is doing... What we're seeing right here is a wonderful education in this very complicated system.
JIM LEHRER: It's a tough education, though, is it not?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, this is a sordid... I mean the level... I don't mean I approve of what we're watching here. Don't misunderstand me. Oh, no. I think this is...
JIM LEHRER: No, I wasn't asking you to.
HAYNES JOHNSON: I can give adjectives if you want.
JIM LEHRER: No, that's all right. Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He has the right to grant the pardon, Bill Clinton did, absolutely. But what he does not have the right to do is to give the pardon in exchange for something else, which could be construed as bribery, which even the toughest Clinton defenders in 1998 said, you know, "an impeachable offense would include bribery of a president." There is no tangible evidence that that occurred in this case, but if that does arise, that does take it into another category.
JIM LEHRER: Pick up on the point that Doris made, that what the Founding Fathers have in mind... Why have a pardon process? Why give the power to a president to kind of overturn something that's already been all the way to the Supreme Court, if they want to? Say, "no, no, no forget it. You're free."
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, the argument that Hamilton and James Madison made, ironically enough, was that you had to give the power singly to a president because if you gave it, for instance, to Congress or to some combination, politics would get into it. And so the idea was that you'd have one human being whose vision extended over the whole country and the national interest, so that he could overturn, for instance, an injustice or do something that is in the national interest that others might not see.
JIM LEHRER: Richard, how do you feel about the fact that we even have a pardon, that a president can even do this, right or wrong, however he or she exercises it?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, we don't know what's going to happen with these investigations. Mary Jo White's investigation, for example, the Clinton appointee in New York who has launched her own criminal probe. We do know this, though: The Constitution is not going to be amended to restrict the president's pardoning authority. It is, however, revealing that both Arlen Specter and Barney Frank, two men who agree on little else, have actually stepped forward...
JIM LEHRER: Senator Specter, a Republican Senator from Pennsylvania and Barney Frank, a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts. Go ahead.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: That's right. But it's pretty clear that that's not going to happen, and I think that would be an unfortunate overreaction to this. One thing we might want to talk about a little bit is however, what are the practical consequences, what may happen as a result of this? Because there's all sorts of... the law of unintended consequences. If I was John McCain and Russ Feingold tonight, I'd be feeling pretty good -- because the fact is that until now, campaign finance reform has seemed like an abstraction to most people. That's because most people don't give to campaigns, whether we like it or not, most people don't follow campaigns the way we do. This, however, it seems to me, brings it all home. This is the sale of access. This is the peddling of influence. It's bipartisan, it takes place every day in Washington, DC, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, and I suspect that one of the practical consequences of this whole affair will be to bolster the chances for some meaningful campaign finance reform.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, is Richard on to something?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I absolutely think he's on to something. In fact, you know what I think is so interesting is that originally the Framers got the pardoning power from the king's power in England. And there was a certain rule at a certain point in British history for the parliament to restrict the king's absolute power because they were selling pardons for money.
JIM LEHRER: Oh, no, no, no. Say it isn't so.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: It is so. There's always something in history that we can go back to. But I do think what's so interesting about this is, even if there wasn't a direct quid pro quo, one of the things that happens in Washington society right now is that these people who are wealthy become the friends of people in power. And then when they do favors for their friends, as they might have been doing for Denise Rich, et cetera, they forget sometimes I think that the money was what brought the friends there in the first place. It is so drenched, as Richard was saying, in access and money and power. If that were to be the outcome of all this, I think it would be a great positive thing that can come from this whole pardoning mess.
JIM LEHRER: And Haynes, that really goes to the hearted of this, does it not?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Oh, yes. This is one of the great phrases is "influence peddling." It's a cliché about American politics. This is influence peddling, it's giving something... and even if it's not legal or illegal or whatever, it looks bad. And you get access and you get a favor, you get a beneficence.
JIM LEHRER: And the more money you have, the more you can buy?
HAYNES JOHNSON: And the more money, the more you buy, and that has happened in virtually all administrations and I think for that reason, going back to the Congress, it's a good thing to look into it. I hope that they don't make it into a circus, but this is a serious question.
JIM LEHRER: Serious question, Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Very serious question, I think perhaps above all, for Bill Clinton because we historians are going to have to deal with what to think about this guy 20 years from now. And it's a fascinating question because, if this and the other things we know about, are just sort of little events, that's one thing. But if there begins to become apparent that there was a consistent level of abuse of power throughout eight years, we don't have the evidence of that yet, and we may never. But if there is, then this assumes a much larger importance than otherwise it would.
JIM LEHRER: Richard, does it surprise you that there has been such a storm over these pardons? Is it a logical inevitable kind of thing?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: No, it doesn't surprise me. I bet it surprised Bill Clinton.
JIM LEHRER: You think so?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: This is so Clintonian in this sense: There is a reason why presidents tend to rise in popular esteem once they're out of office. On January 21, they ceased to be controversy-generating figures. They are no longer divisive, partisan, political leaders. It's almost like taking the veil -- that is, for most presidents. President Clinton, characteristically, thought he could have it all. He could leave office -- remember he said, "we're not going anywhere." He could have his own hand-picked choice at the Democratic National Committee. He could, in effect, be the titular leader of the Democratic Party -- perhaps even avenge Al Gore's loss, perhaps even pave the way for Hillary Clinton at a restoration in 2004. He could go out and give $100,000 speeches and still enjoy that same kind of rise in popular esteem that other presidents have in the past. And apparently friends told him, "you know, you ought to go away for six months." It was very good advice. He did not listen to it, and he's paying a price.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. We're going to go away now, though, and not pay a price. Thank you all four very much.