With the stroke of a pen, President Bush last week bestowed forgiveness on four people who were long ago convicted of minor crimes, spent no time in prison and completed their probations.
The presidential pardons were holiday gifts that wiped away embarrassing and possibly career-crippling criminal records while restoring the civil rights of the four recipients. But some scholars of presidential pardons were less struck by Bush's show of mercy than by his reluctance to show it by granting clemency petitions more often and in more significant cases.
"He continues not to view his role as chief executive as one where he should temper the justice handed out by the justice system with mercy," said Douglas A. Berman, an Ohio State University law professor who studies presidential pardons. "This really is a stingy view of things, especially given how much larger our federal justice system is now" than it was in years past.
Bush has issued 31 clemency orders since becoming president. His father, George H.W. Bush, granted 77 during his one term as president -- which itself was hardly a prodigious pace. Franklin D. Roosevelt granted 3,687 clemency petitions during his four terms as president.
"What President Bush has done, to my personal way of thinking, is approach the use of his pardon power with no theory other than to stay safe," said Margaret Love, a Washington lawyer who served as federal pardon attorney, heading the government's screening of clemency petitions, between 1990 and 1997.
Love, Berman and others say that presidential clemency could be a useful and powerful tool. Not only could it set an example of forgiveness, but it could also focus attention on a wide range of issues, including the harsh punishment that is a byproduct of federal mandatory-sentencing laws. And if a president used the power regularly and objectively, they argue, it would diminish the controversy sure to accompany some clemency orders.
Bush is hardly alone among modern presidents in using clemency powers cautiously. The public's dim view of criminals, a public mood to be tough on crime and, most of all, fear of making a big political mistake have made presidents increasingly reluctant to issue pardons or commute criminal sentences -- at least until they are on their way out the door.
Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, did not grant any pardons during four of his first five years in office. But he stirred public outrage and a congressional hearing by granting 176 clemency petitions in his final days in office, including one for fugitive financer Marc Rich, the former husband of Democratic Party donor Denise Rich. In all, Clinton issued 456 clemency orders -- 140 pardons and 36 commutations -- during his two terms in office, according to statistics kept by the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
A president's power to grant clemency for federal charges is delineated in the Constitution. Historically, presidents have used it to help close troubling chapters in the nation's history, to free people they felt were wrongly convicted or, most controversially, to help political allies get out from under criminal investigation.
President George Washington pardoned two leaders of the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, a tax riot that took thousands of troops to put down, resulted in several deaths and shook the new republic to its core. Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson granted blanket pardons for Confederate soldiers; Gerald R. Ford pardoned his predecessor, Richard M. Nixon, for his role in the Watergate scandal; Jimmy Carter pardoned Vietnam draft resisters; Ronald Reagan pardoned Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who was convicted of making illegal donations to Nixon's 1972 reelection campaign. President George H.W. Bush pardoned former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger and five others for their roles in the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages scandal.
Most often, the power has been used in far less notable cases, and before 1980 it was common for presidents to grant 100 or more petitions a year, Love said.
The vast majority of petitions for clemency are filed with the Justice Department. There they are screened by the pardon attorney's office and subject to an FBI background check before being sent to the president for a final determination.
White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said Bush weighs several factors in considering clemency petitions: the severity of the original offenses, whether applicants have accepted full responsibility for their crimes, whether they have shown remorse and whether they have sought to repay their debt to society by being active in the community.
The four people granted pardons last week by Bush were convicted long ago of relatively minor offenses. They are Ronald William Cauley, a Rhode Island man sentenced in 1980 to one year's probation for misapplication of bank funds; Kristan Diane Bullock Atkins, a North Carolina woman sentenced in 1990 to three years' probation, 100 hours of community service and a $1,000 fine for embezzlement; Roger Charles Weber, a California man who served two years' probation and paid a $200 fine after a 1969 conviction for stealing $32 worth of eight-track audiotapes; and Stephen Davis Simmons, a Texas man sentenced in 1981 to five years' probation and a $2,000 fine on counterfeiting charges.
Bush exercised similar caution during his six years as governor of Texas, issuing only 16 clemency orders. In 2000, Bush told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the low number of clemency orders was caused, in part, by a mistake he made in 1995, pardoning a man for a 1988 conviction for growing marijuana in his back yard. The man, Steve Raney, used his newly cleansed record to get a position as a deputy constable; within months, he was caught stealing cocaine seized in a roadside drug bust.
"I have nothing against pardoning," Bush said at the time. "I just haven't been very aggressive on it."