Commutation Rubbish

The idea that Mr. Fitzgerald has somehow served justice in the execution of his duties is discredited quickly with a simple analogy. If a man goes hunting for bear and comes back with a squirrel, he hasn’t had a successful hunt. He has only found a snack.

My last boss, New York Times columnist John Tierney, referred to the entire Plame affair as "nada-gate." If you’re in Washington, you care about this mostly unimportant court case because you can’t order a sandwich without overhearing more about it. It was the OJ trial of the city, but let’s be clear here. The absence of two dead bodies, mounds of evidence, and a high-profile car chase only gives insight as to just how bored people are in this town, and how desperate the media is to entertain us. This was not the trial of the century. It was far less interesting than the Simpson trial, and it makes you wish someone had died.

The story was on its way to being Watergate, as long as everyone respectfully played along and pretended that Secret Agent Joseph Wilson and Secret Agent Valerie Plame were involved in super-double-secret covert operations. If this couple had been singularly responsible for finding evidence to invade Iraq (which, thankfully, they were not), the eventual trial would have ended with a flourish. Instead it just squeaked like some small animal dying.

At least a reporter went to jail. That was fun.

President Bush’s decision to commute Scooter Libby’s sentence was derided by Democrats who were shocked, shocked to find that such political camaraderie outweighed justice. Of course, that "justice" was the product of a prosecution just as political. If the Democrats had their way, Libby would have been the political prisoner of Congress, crucified for the sins of the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq War. The presidential pardon is a political tool, just as independent prosecutors are political tools. Or just tools.

Speaking of which. It takes a special level of zeal to consider 30 months in prison and a $250,000 fine to be fair judgment for a perjury charge that didn’t have widespread effects. "Justice," here, is defined by the deranged people who’d rather prosecute an aide to the Vice President than consider that this was a costly prosecution that would have been worthwhile if it had gotten anything done. Mr. Fitzgerald is, after all, a government employee.

The response of those on the right that the President’s decision is "APPROPRIATE" is equally, if not more, bizarre. That was the line from National Review‘s editors, written in all caps with a contradictory bravado. All caps for "NOT GUILTY" or "PARDON HIM," maybe, but "APPROPRIATE" sounds as empty as it looks. There is nothing appropriate about letting a man sit in limbo with gargantuan legal expenses over his head and his reputation sullied by a criminal conviction.

The President’s statement on clemency seemed like an apology — but to the people who least deserved it. The President "respect[s] the jury’s verdict," but finds the sentence "excessive." This is a strange distinction if only because the negative implication is quite an indictment (no pun intended). If commuting a sentence is a sign of respecting a jury’s verdict, does that mean that every presidential pardon is a slap to the jury system? Would it have been possible for the President to pardon Libby while still respecting the verdict? Was the sentencing the only bad part?

The founding fathers allowed the executive to grant clemency so that the government would err on the side of being more merciful. As a matter of discretion, a president may apply that in both inappropriate and appropriate ways. Inappropriate: Bill Clinton’s pardon spree which was either a low moment in American history or a high watermark for Clinton’s fundraising (take Marc Rich, whose ex-wife gave $400,000 to the Clinton Library). Appropriate: George Washington pardoning participants in the Whiskey Rebellion and Lincoln doing the same for the confederates in the Civil War. No one is concerned that there will be a Scooter Libby room in the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Texas.

One can argue that the President’s commutation is so appropriate because Libby may eventually be exonerated through the appeals process, something that a simple pardon supposedly would never allow. But this is a ridiculous pander because it assumes that anyone whose mind needs to be changed can be changed by the appeals process. If the trial which just concluded was based entirely on shoddy memories and bad prosecution, the only promise held by an appeal is a different prosecutor. Meanwhile, more taxpayer and private money will be spent on a trial that ultimately means nothing to the public, but everything to a man so bogged down he can’t do anything else.

Bush should forget about his "respect for the jury’s verdict," and just pardon the guy.


Addendum: Andrew Sullivan and others are piping up this nonsensical tune about one standard for the President’s friends and one standard for the rest of us. How can one argue this seriously? To be consistent in this view, you’d have to argue that Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon was the peak of nepotism. And some conservatives may have amnesia regarding their views on perjury, but there’s solid ground for arguing that even if you accept that Scooter Libby perjured himself, it’s a presidential prerogative to grant clemency.