IN TWO YEARS as president, George W. Bush has pardoned two turkeys, in the traditional pre-Thanksgiving ritual. But he has yet to pardon a single human being or commute a single sentence. Christmastime is the usual season for presidential clemency. The White House will not say what clemency actions Mr. Bush may be planning in the last two weeks of the year, but this would be a good time to change that record.
Even before Mr. Bush's arrival, the federal power to pardon was in a decline of sorts. Most pardons in recent years have been largely symbolic acts that have taken place long after convicts have served their sentences; recent presidents have generally preferred locking people up to setting them free. And when presidents have used the power aggressively, they have gotten burned. Bill Clinton left office in disgrace over his spree of last-minute pardons, and Mr. Bush's father stirred controversy at the end of his presidency by pardoning former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger. The lesson might be seen as, "Safer to say no."
Yet Mr. Bush has not taken the path of least resistance with other presidential powers; he has fought for them. And few executive powers need a champion today more than the power to forgive. The Founders understood its importance. Alexander Hamilton wrote that the palliative of executive clemency "should be as little as possible fettered or embarrassed," for without it, "justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel." A few decades later, Justice Joseph Story presciently worried "that the power will not be sufficiently exerted in cases where public feeling accompanies the prosecution." That is precisely what has happened even as the growth of federal law enforcement -- and the federal inmate population -- has made the power to pardon, in principle, more important than ever. Surely there are some federal prisoners with unjust sentences or sincere and demonstrable rehabilitations. The pardon power gives the president the ability to right such wrongs. To breathe some life back into it, he need only use it in a fashion at once magnanimous and not self-interested. People, even more than turkeys, need presidential grace.