COMMENTARY: Whitewater pardons: Shall the law be king?

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c. 1996 Religion News Service

(Charles W. Colson, former special counsel to Richard Nixon, served a prison term for his role in the Watergate scandal. He now heads Prison Fellowship International, an evangelical Christian ministry to the imprisoned and their families. Contact Colson via e-mail at 71421.1551(at)compuserve.com.)

UNDATED _ Pre-election speculation about potential pardons for President Clinton’s convicted business partners _ and his wife Hillary _ inspired howling and wailing among Republicans, who seemed to believe that the prospect of pardons would drive voters toward the struggling candidacy of Bob Dole.

Once again, they misread the public mood. Yet the question looms large today. Having served at the right hand of a president _ one who was himself pardoned, but only after having been driven from office _ I have an understanding of what is probably on President Clinton’s mind. My conclusion: There is a good chance of a pardon, which is quite different from saying that a pardon would be good for the country.

President Clinton no longer has to worry about re-election. What is now foremost on his mind is his place in the history books. He will, therefore, avoid as much controversy as possible, which is why former Whitewater partner Susan McDougal should resign herself to serving out her prison term. She and her husband, among others, have been sufficiently discredited to end their threat to the president. Now is the time for McDougal and company, in Watergate-era parlance, to slowly twist in the wind.

Not so, however, for Hillary Clinton. The president came into office in 1992 with the promise that if you voted for him, you got his wife, too. Can one half of this duo be in the dock while the other attempts to govern? Hardly. Which is why I believe that if the president gets wind of an indictment, he will issue a pre-emptive pardon of his wife.

The groundwork has already been laid. During a recent PBS interview, the president denounced the inquiry into Whitewater-related matters as a political witch hunt, a cry that has been taken up by some of his advisers. Kenneth Starr, who is leading the inquiry, has been tagged a partisan zealot whose single motivation is to bring down Bill Clinton.

And so the president can almost turn himself into a martyr, the gallant husband who cannot allow his wife to take the bullet meant for him. He can offer to let the verdict of history fall on his shoulders. It would be a heroic performance. What’s more, the president would have little trouble convincing himself that most Americans think he ought to issue a pardon. After all, they knew all about these charges and voted for him anyway. All told, Hillary Clinton has every reason to be sleeping soundly these days.

None of this is to suggest that a pardon would be admirable. Quite the contrary.

No one should stand above the law _ especially those at the top of the political order. For a president to pardon his wife in order to protect her from justice would send an unmistakable message: The law is no longer king; the king is now the law.

Those who support a pardon seem to have forgotten _ if indeed they ever knew _ that law was once the plaything of monarchs, valuable when it could be used against opponents and non-existent should anyone attempt to apply it to the crown. This was a wonderful arrangement for those at the top, and not so great for everyone else.

Dissenters of that era, including reformers such as the Scottish minister Samuel Rutherford, argued that because all people are equal before God, they should also be equal before the law, with no exceptions for the ruling class. Accordingly, the king should not be the law, but the law should be king _ thus the title of Rutherford’s 1644 masterpiece”Lex Rex,”which greatly influenced John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and others who laid the foundation for the American Constitution.

This principle keeps government in its place as servant, not master. It is an arrangement best not disturbed.

Governors and presidents are given pardoning power, which they may use in extraordinary circumstances to protect citizens from injustice or to right old wrongs. Should Hillary Clinton be indicted, however, it would be impossible to honestly assert that her troubles fall into either of these categories. Instead, this would be a clear case of nepotism, an abuse of power and a breach of the public trust.

Will he or won’t he? Our deepest traditions and principles say he shouldn’t, but our traditions and principles aren’t faring so well these days.

If the first lady is freed from the legitimate demands of justice, however, let us all recognize that her good fortune represents a radical departure from the rule of law on which this nation was founded, and by which our freedoms are sustained.

MJP END COLSON

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