CHRISTMASTIME is the traditional season for presidential clemency, so it's no particular surprise that President Bush has belatedly issued the first pardons of his term. But the churlishness with which he finally exercised this most magnanimous of presidential powers deserves note. Mr. Bush pardoned only seven people, each of whom, a White House spokeswoman said -- as if to play down the importance of the action -- "committed a relatively minor offense many years ago, completed his prison sentence or probation and paid any fine, and has gone on to live an exemplary life." The message: No Marc Riches here. . . . Not even a story (the White House let the Justice Department announce the pardons). . . . Just some seasonal symbolism. . . . Now can we talk about Iraq, please?

Mr. Bush will, it is true, most likely avoid controversy by issuing purely symbolic pardons to people such as Olgen Williams (a postal worker sentenced to a year in prison back in 1971 for stealing $10.90 from the mail), Kenneth Franklin Copley (two years' probation in 1962 for making untaxed whiskey) and Harlan Paul Dobas (three months in jail in 1966 for conspiracy to sell grain stolen from his employer). Nor do we begrudge these people their pardons, which are probably very meaningful to them. But the pardon power was meant to be grander than this. And just as a president can abuse the pardon power -- as Bill Clinton did -- he can also debase it by underusing it. The power was meant as a check on the criminal justice system, a vehicle for mercy and for remedying injustices. The federal inmate population today is larger than it has ever been; the role of pardons should be bigger than ever. Yet Mr. Bush could not find a single inmate who deserved clemency. By issuing an average of 3.5 pardons a year -- none of which carries consequence other than forgiveness for individuals who long ago served their time -- he announces, in effect, that the American justice system requires no check, just a Christmas card.