You may be relieved to know that Billy the Kid is still an outlaw. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson had been thinking about issuing a pardon for the notorious William Bonney, who was killed by lawmen 130 years ago, but he decided against it.
The descendants of equally legendary sheriff Pat Garrett, who brought Billy the Kid down, had “expressed outrage over the proposal” according to Fox News. His granddaughter Pauline Garrett Tillinghast explained, “It’s ridiculous to pardon a murderer. Hollywood has turned him into some sort of a folk hero.” It’s delightful to know Pat Garrett’s granddaughter is still with us, and has inherited his steely-eyed views on law and order.
The descendants of New Mexico Governor Lew Wallace also were not amused. The pardon request was based on the notion that Wallace offered Billy the Kid a pardon in exchange for testimony against his associates. Granting a pardon now would rewrite New Mexico’s history to make Lew Wallace “a dishonorable liar,” in the words of his great-grandson.
In the course of investigating the matter, Governor Richardson’s staff reported there are no written records of such a pardon. The Kid was a murderer whose official body count stood at 9, including a sheriff, although Wild West legends say he killed 21, one for each year of his life. Sheriff Garrett put him down after a jailbreak that killed two deputies. The politics of 1881 may have been much different than today, but it still strains the imagination that pardoning Billy the Kid would have seemed like a good idea to Governor Wallace.
The larger question is why the heck New Mexico’s current governor would be wasting time and resources on such a frivolity anyway. He’s not the only one, as Florida’s outgoing governor, Charlie Crist, frittered away his last days in office by working on a pardon for long-dead Doors frontman Jim Morrison, convicted of indecent exposure in 1969 for opening a door that should have remained closed, in front of a Miami concert audience. Crist called the pardon an acknowledgement of Morrison’s “enduring body of work.” I’ve lived in Florida for most of my life, and never before realized the state government essentially runs itself, leaving the Governor plenty of time to work on salutes to the legacy of long-dead rock stars.
Every level of government wastes time and money on these symbolic gestures, which politicians are hopelessly addicted to. It flatters their ego – Richardson was literally trying to rewrite history, while Charlie Crist is jockeying for position as Like The Greatest Doors Fan Ever, Man. It’s also a way to brew up a little bipartisan good will among voters, who might smile as they scan the morning paper to discoverer their governor is a history buff or rock fan.
At the national level, we get stuff like the ritual White House pardon of the Thanksgiving turkey, a practice I’d bet even money that President Chris Christie would discontinue, with a brief statement that he’s too busy to waste his time on such nonsense.
These symbolic gestures are not exactly harmless good fun. They take up time and money – pardon requests must be processed and researched. When they’re official attempts to rewrite the past, as the Billy the Kid pardon would have been, they tarnish the reputation and legacy of people like Governor Lew Wallace and Sheriff Pat Garrett.
They also test the patience of a public grown increasingly exasperated by government offices that have much more important things to do. I don’t know how the people of New Mexico feel about the effort to pardon Billy the Kid, but Crist’s weird obsession with clearing Morrison’s name made him a laughingstock in Florida. Well, okay, more of a laughingstock. Future political consultants would be wise to consider the response of an understandably grouchy public that welcomes time-wasting vanity gestures from state officials about as much as they like seeing a wave of spam crash into their email inbox.