“I forgive you.” Those are powerful words. They can lift a person’s guilt or shame, and send a signal to others that all is well between you.
But “I forgive you” and “the country forgives you” are not the same thing. They shouldn’t be. So perhaps it’s time to rethink this whole presidential pardon business.
Now, before you scatter to your political corners, know that I say this not because President Donald Trump has used his pardon power largely as a means of rewarding supporters or getting back at enemies, but because other presidents have as well, and more are likely to do so in the future.
Unless you see something I don’t, this country isn’t coming together to hold hands anytime soon, no matter who wins the election in November. But one thing we should all agree upon is this:
A president is not a king.
Which is where these pardons began. In the British monarchy, the King (or Queen) has long had “the royal prerogative of mercy.” It goes back to Anglo-Saxon times, when we used to number centuries in single digits.
Many things from those years make no sense today. The pardon has become one of them. We are not England. We don’t have a royal family. We don’t sing, “God save the President.”
But for some reason, our forefathers, more than 200 years ago, carried over this tradition in creating the presidency, even though George Mason, considered the father of our Bill of Rights, objected vehemently. He wrote that the president, “ought not to have the power of pardoning, because he may frequently pardon crimes which were advised by himself.”
A rash of pardons
Think about it. Who is the president to singularly decide that someone’s sentence — adjudicated by the federal courts — should suddenly be wiped away? Do we normally endow that kind of power to one official — to erase the work of prosecutors, judges and juries? I understand that governors can commute death sentences, but that’s just sparing an execution in exchange for life in prison. It’s not wiping a slate clean.
Presidents get to do that with pardons. And ours have done it for all kinds of reasons. Some appear compassionate, like freeing people serving crazy sentences for minor crimes. Some try to correct history, forgiving individuals posthumously for things that today would not be illegal.
But more and more over recent decades, presidents have been using pardons for political or personal reasons. Gerald Ford pardoned his former boss, Richard Nixon, after Nixon’s resignation, even shielding him from being charged in the future. Ronald Reagan pardoned New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. George H.W. Bush pardoned Iran-Contra figures, including former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger.
Bill Clinton issued a rash of pardons on his last day in office, including Marc Rich, whose ex-wife had been a major Clinton contributor. Barack Obama used his pardon power nearly 2,000 times, more than the previous five presidents combined.
And Trump, still in his first term, has already pardoned people like controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio and commentator Dinesh D’Souza, both vocal supporters of his. Oh, and former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., who had never actually gone to jail in the first place.
Who believes this is proper?
Now let’s compare these pardons to the original intent. When our forefathers created this power, they envisioned it as a tool to heal rifts in the country. And at first, it was used that way. George Washington pardoned members of the Whisky Rebellion, one of our new nation’s first government protests. He said he did so in hopes of unifying America.
Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson did similar things with pardons for Confederate supporters after the Civil War. Ford and Jimmy Carter offered amnesty to Vietnam draft violators.
Such moves, with national implications, are a far cry from helping your friends, supporters or contributors. And of course, the ultimate perversion of this power has already been threatened by Trump, when he tweeted that had “the absolute right to PARDON myself.”
Who in their right mind thinks that’s proper? Come on. I don’t care how deep into Trump’s camp someone might be. Telling yourself “you are officially forgiven” only works for dictators and warlords.
We are not governed by either. So why proffer that power? Trump has already broken down the normal protocol of presidential pardons — which used to take years and lots of paperwork and the Office of the Pardon Attorney — and has turned it into a whimsical, whenever-I-feel-like-it reality show. The pardon of former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik began with a phone call Tuesday morning and was completed by Tuesday afternoon, according to the New York Times.
A former junk bond king? A football team owner? A governor who tried to sell a Senate seat? These are not pardons that “heal the nation.” If anything, they anger half of it, which delights the other half, which does nothing for the good of the nation and everything for making a president feel like a king.
Which, when we think about it, was everything our forefathers were trying to escape from, wasn’t it?
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.