A carefully conceived White House strategy to ignore the damning report of the Iran-contra congressional committees was undermined in advance last week by disclosures that preemptive presidential pardons are being urged for Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter and Lt. Col. Oliver L. North.
White House operatives, eyes firmly fixed on a superpower summit and a deficit-reduction deal, had hoped to avoid all talk of pardons. Their response was a towel hurled into the ring by the seconds of a beaten prizefighter who refuses to go down. In refusing to continue the bout and dispute the congressional report's conclusions, they hoped to focus attention on the next match.
Shortly before the report was released, however, administration sources disclosed that former national security adviser William P. Clark, in a letter to the president in August had urged him to pardon the two former aides. Clark said North and Poindexter had acted at "considerable personal risk" and "without consideration for personal gain" from their initiatives.
Pardon talk had been prevalent in the national security community long before Clark's letter. It reflected a view that Reagan was privately sympathetic to the motives of North and Poindexter, if not to all of their actions. Others favored a pardon as an expression of ideological support for the Nicaraguan contras.
"A pardon is not necessarily a recognition that any criminal conduct has occurred," Clark wrote to Reagan. "It would simply be an expression of your conclusion that the story has been told, that the people involved have suffered enough and that neither they, the office of the president nor the country should be forced to endure an extended criminal trial in which the central issue relates to the creation and implementation of your foreign policy."
Clark is a lawyer and longtime friend and trouble-shooter of the president. He supported the contras but was skeptical of some Israeli policies and tilted toward Iraq in the Iran-Iraq conflict. He also was an ally of former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, who opposed the Iran arms sale. It is possible, perhaps probable, that the scheme of trading arms for hostages might never have occurred had Clark remained in the White House.
But Clark, whose views I usually value, is giving the president bum advice this time. For starters, a pardon would appear to be a payoff to Poindexter for saying that the "buck stops here with me" on the diversion of proceeds from the Iran arms sale to the contras. It also would choke off a criminal investigation that may answer troubling questions.
Despite Clark's assertion that "the story has been told," the ending remains incomplete. North described "the enterprise" set up to transfer arms to Iran as "the starting point for the creation of an organization that would conduct activities similar to those of the Central Intelligence Agency, including counterterrorism." What other activities took place? Were they linked to the president? Did any participants in the enterprise divert funds to their own use? In a government of the people, by the people and for the people, the answers to these questions deserve to be known.
Martin Anderson, often considered the guardian of conservative values in the Reagan presidency, thinks that it would be unwise for Reagan to pardon anyone "until he has the full range of the facts." Anderson, usually on the same side of the ideological fence as Clark, thinks it would be advisable for Reagan "to go slow about a pardon until the special prosecutor has completed his work."
Perhaps Reagan should recall the example of President Gerald R. Ford, who arguably lost the 1976 election because he had pardoned former president Richard M. Nixon. At least Ford knew what Nixon had done and the reasons why he was pardoning him.
Reagan has more to lose than an election. While the Iran-contra affair tarnished the luster of his presidency, polls show that a majority of Americans still consider Reagan a man of integrity. It is an asset too valuable to forfeit for the false comfort of a pardon that might prevent justice being done.
Reaganism of the Week: Speaking to the American Council of Life Insurance last Wednesday, the president said: "I cherish no illusions about the Soviets . . . . For them, past arms-control treaties were like diets. The second day was always the best, for that's when they broke them."