IT SEEMS THAT there are some things that Ronald Reagan has in common with Richard Nixon. They are both from California, both played football in college, both are Republicans and both share a common view of the presidential right to decide when a crime is not a crime: When they say so.
In was Nixon's persistence in confusing himself with the law and the national interest with his own interest, that brought him down. And now it is Reagan who has taken the presidential pardon and converted it from an act of forgiveness, to authorization to do the same thing all over again. He did this in pardoning W. Mark Felt and Edward S. Miller, two former high-ranking FBI officials convicted of authorizing illegal seearches.
Both Felt and Miller and been convicted after a seven-week trial. They had not been jailed, but fined -- Felt $5,000, Miller $3,000 -- and were in the process of appealing the verdict when the president acted. Now the appeal is likely to be moot.
In a sense, that's a shame because there are significant issues of both law and morality at stake here. Neither Miller nor Felt are anyone's example of rogue cops. They rubber-hosed no one, stole no money, shook down no store owners. The illegal searches were conducted in the name of national security and carried out in the best traditions of the FBI. After all, the FBI had been breaking and entering for years. It didn't think it was above the law. It thought it was the law.
Little wonder, then, that Felt and Miller were convinced of the rightness of their actions. And little wonder, too, that FBI and other law enforcement officials from around the country rallied to their defense. In the end, they raised a defense fund of more than $1.5 million which would have been enough, even at today's outrageous rates, to see them through the appeals process. Now maybe they can donate the money to Reagan's White House preservation fund.
It is interesting that in his statement pardoning Felt and Miller, Reagan likened them to draft resisters who were pardoned by President Carter. Reagan apparently sees the resisters on one side of the Vietnam debate and men like Felt and Miller on the other side. To him, they were all doing what they thought was right -- marching to their own drummers. If one deserves to be pardoned, so does the other.
But the draft resisters did not trample on the rights of others. They did not invade the privacy of innocent people as Felt and Miller did when they authorized searches of the homes of relatives and friends of fugitive radicals, thus depriving the of the right to be secure in their own homes. And when they were pardoned, it was not with a presidential statement all but endorsing their actions, but with one ruefully acknowledging that, crime or no crime, the time had come to heal some wounds.
The president, though, was on to something when he made the comparison. Both Felt and Miller, like the draft protesters the president so loathes, took it upon themselves to decide when and under what circumstances they would abide by the law. It is convenient for the president to say that both Felt and Miller were following orders, but the jury -- the people who heard the evidence -- said that they were not. What they did, they did on their own. Like the draft protesters, they were answering to some higher haw, breaking the law for the purest of motives, but breaking the law nonetheless. If we all do that, there will be chaos.
It would be one thing for the president to cite the long and distinguished careers of both men, to say that their trial was punishment enough for what they had done and then send them on their way. But it is quite another thing for him to say that because Felt and Miller thought they were doing the right thing, because they had the interests of the country in mind, their crime was not a crime.
When Reagan does that, he is doing more than just following in the footsteps of Richard Nixon, who felt that the presidency and the law were synonymous. He is saying also that as president he not only has the right to pardon and to forgive, but to overrule a jury, to say its decision was wrong -- to decide, in other words when a crime is not a crime. Bluntly put, it's when he says so.