Last week, President Bush issued eight pardons, the first of his second term. That brings to 39 the total of clemency orders during his presidency.
It’s hardly a record of compassion, conservative or otherwise. His father issued 77 during his single term, and former President Bill Clinton issued 456 pardons and commutations during his eight years.
Perhaps President Bush is reluctant to use this power because Clinton brought it into disrepute by pardoning or commuting sentences for 176 people during his last night at the White House.
According to a Web site on presidential pardons run by the University of Pittsburgh, only five presidents, all in the 18th and 19th centuries, issued fewer clemency orders than Bush. Two of them, Harrison and Garfield, died before they had the chance. Predictably, President Franklin Roosevelt issued the most — 3,687.
It is curious that Bush, who always seems determined to see the best in people, does not make more use of pardons and commutations.
The university’s Web site cites a newspaper interview in which Bush says as Texas governor he had no philosophical objection to pardons, that he just wasn’t very “aggressive” — his word — in using it. He did say he pardoned a man for a marijuana conviction only to have him get busted for cocaine a few months later.
The Justice Department is pretty thorough about screening applicants for pardons and commutations. It is one of the first powers _ right after commander-in-chief and head of the executive branch — that the framers of the Constitution conferred on the office of the president. Clearly they meant it to be used, in Alexander Hamilton’s words, in the interests of “humanity and good policy,” and President Bush should use it likewise.