When it comes to granting pardons, Bill Clinton has been the stingiest president of the 20th century. And yet as his first term comes to a close, his use -- or more precisely, his potential use -- of one of the office's most significant powers has suddenly emerged as a major point of contention.

In a recent interview the president refused to rule out second-term pardons for Whitewater figures like Susan McDougal, who from her perch behind bars refuses to testify before a grand jury about Clinton's role in the soured land deal.

Asked about possible pardons for his three convicted associates -- McDougal, her ex-husband James and former Arkansas governor Jim Guy Tucker -- he gave a careful, lawyerly answer. "My position would be that their cases should be handled like others," Clinton told PBS-TV's Jim Lehrer. "There's a regular process for that, and I have regular meetings on that and I review those cases as they come up and after there's an evaluation done by the Justice Department. And that's how I think it should be handled."

Clinton's statement stunned lawyers and others involved in the Whitewater investigation, as well as Republicans on Capitol Hill, who viewed it as a public wink to McDougal to maintain her silence until after the Nov. 5 election. Clinton's lawyers have been in close contact with her throughout the contempt-of-court drama that ended last month with her being led away from a Little Rock courthouse in shackles and leg chains for defying independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

"For {Clinton} to hold out the possibility of pardons encourages her to stonewall, to withhold information vital to the prosecution, to not testify whether he told the truth," said Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), who introduced a resolution in the House calling on Clinton to disavow Whitewater pardons. "It's a clear conflict of interest."

The White House scoffs at that, insisting that Clinton plans no special favors. And during a live jail-house interview on CNN's "Burden of Proof" yesterday, McDougal said she expects no such aid from her onetime business partner.

"The president's never offered me a deal. I've never asked for a deal from them," she said. "He would probably hurt his presidency and his place in history. . . . I don't see how the man could possibly do it."

If nothing else, the furor has focused new attention on how Clinton has wielded the president's ultimate instrument of legal forgiveness.

Enshrined in the Constitution, the pardon represents presidential power at its purest. The president's decision is final and absolute, his discretion virtually unlimited. Since the Founding Fathers, he has had the right to absolve any federal crime other than impeachment (state crimes are left to governors to pardon), though clemency does not expunge the record or establish innocence.

In modern times, convicts seeking pardons apply through the Justice Department, which vets their cases before sending them to the White House with recommendations. Typically, applicants must demonstrate that since their convictions they have been law-abiding residents and produce at least three character references.

Bypassing that process risks a national outcry, as happened when President Gerald R. Ford pardoned his predecessor, Richard M. Nixon, or when President George Bush reprieved six Iran-contra figures. More often, presidents grant clemency to minor nonviolent criminals who were freed from prison many years before and simply want the restoration of their citizenship, allowing them to vote or own guns.

So far, Clinton has used the power sparingly. Of 1,518 clemency requests, Clinton has pardoned just 53 convicted criminals and commuted the sentences of three others. His 4 percent grant rate is the lowest of any president this century, one-seventh of his predecessors' average.

But in one case, Clinton has been willing to help out someone with a personal connection. One of the president's rare pardons, according to Justice Department records, went to Jack Pakis, a family friend convicted of federal gambling charges in 1972.

Pakis, a bookie in Hot Springs, Ark., who got probation, was a longtime social friend of Clinton's mother, Virginia Kelley; his son, Mike, is close to the president's brother, Roger. "I talked to my attorney and said, Well, Bill's in there; maybe I can get my pardon now,' " said Pakis, 75.

Nonetheless, he said he has never talked to Clinton since he took office, though Pakis was at Virginia Kelley's 1994 funeral and his son was a pallbearer.

The White House said Pakis met all the usual criteria, including good conduct and recommendations from law enforcement officials.

"This man would've been pardoned if he had been from Alaska," said spokeswoman Mary Ellen Glynn.

His case, first reported by the Washington Times, has only fueled speculation about Clinton's intentions regarding Whitewater. After the president made his statement, congressional Republicans called it the equivalent of obstructing justice.

By even considering a pardon for his Whitewater associates, GOP critics charged, Clinton discouraged them from providing prosecutors with evidence that might implicate him. A letter signed by 217 Republicans and three Democrats in the House called on Clinton to forswear any Whitewater pardons.

"This is absolutely sleaze at its worst," said Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who wrote the letter. "This makes Richard Nixon look like a Sunday school teacher."

White House attorney Mark Fabiani brushed off the criticism as predictable GOP campaign rhetoric.

"The president's position is clear," he said. "There will be no special treatment for anyone and there will be no change in the review done by the Justice Department in these cases no matter who the cases involve."

Yet were he to follow standard Justice Department procedures, Clinton wouldn't even contemplate pardons. Justice normally does not accept a pardon application until at least five years after a sentence has been completed.

However, if he follows Justice guidelines, Clinton could commute his associates' sentences to time served without granting a pardon. And as president, he can ignore the standards altogether. BEG YOUR PARDON?

President Clinton has granted 4 percent of the 1,518 pardons and commutations requested of him. That puts him at the low end of the scale for modern presidents. Percentage of presidential clemency actions granted Roosevelt

28% Truman

42% Eisenhower

27% Kennedy

41% Johnson

30% Nixon

26% Ford

31% Carter

22% Reagan

13% Bush

5% Clinton

4% NOTE: Includes Ford's pardon of Nixon by proclamation and Bush's pardons of six people involved in Iran-contra by proclamation. SOURCE: Office of the Pardon Attorney CAPTION: Truman CAPTION: Kennedy CAPTION: Bush CAPTION: Clinton