Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Context: Carter v. Clinton, Pot v. Kettle III

When everyone in the world was piling on Bill Clinton for his notorious "last-minute" pardons - because it was easy enough to do - former President Jimmy Carter was right there in the crowd, throwing his own flames. Carter condemned Clinton for granting pardons late in the term, for doing so in the face of the opinions of law enforcement officials and for granting clemency in exchange for gifts and donations. However, in previous posts here and here, we have documented that Carter 1) had his own fourth year pardon surge, and 2) it included a spree in the last several weeks of his administration. Carter also 3) granted clemency over the protests of law enforcement officials and 4) was not blind to the financial support pardon applicants provided to his party.

That all being said, what did Jimmy Carter have to say about the other big pardon controversy in the Clinton administration, the FALN pardons? Answer? Nothing. Indeed Carter supported the pardons. Why? Well, he could hardly take any other position on the matter. After all, he had pardoned his own share of notable terrorists over the protests of law enforcement officials and he also knew what it was like to be suspected of using the clemency power for political gain.

On September 6, 1979, Carter commuted the life sentence of Oscar Collazo to time served. Collazo, and another individual, had once attempted to assassinate President Harry S Truman and, but for the excellent marksmanship of a dying security guard, they would have almost certainly accomplished their goal. At the same time, Carter commuted the sentences of Irving Flores Rodriguez, Rafael Cancel-Miranda and Lolita Lebron, who expressed their political views by standing in the visitor's gallery of the United States House of Representatives and filling the chamber with bullets - hitting several members of Congress in the process. None of the four above mentioned individuals ever even admitted guilt, much less expressed remorse for their behavior. And none of them ever applied for parole or a pardon.

At Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Cancel-Miranda held his copy of Jimmy Carter’s clemency warrant high in the air and tore it into little pieces. He then scattered the remains throughout an admiring crowd. Later, he would defend his future "right to fight" and explained that he "might" have to use bombs. He also bragged that his bullets hit more members of Congress than those of his accomplices. Lebron said she was “proud” of herself and promised she would return to Puerto Rico and “light a fire of national liberation.” She also mocked the President’s “human rights” justification for the commutations and called his use of the pardoning power an act of “political expediency.” She was not alone in that assessment.

The Federal Criminal Investigators Association called Carter’s commutations a “travesty” and urged Congress to investigate the matter. The Los Angeles Times considered Carter’s decision “a mistake.” In an editorial entitled “Terrorism Goes Free,” it was observed that the PR campaign to release the Puerto Ricans made much of the “price” that was paid by the political dissenters. Little, however, was said about the “greater price” that one American paid – Leslie Coffelt, the guard who was shot and killed by Collazo’s partner. Puerto Rico’s Governor, Carlos Romero Barcelo, also opposed the President. Barcelo could not get past the fact that the prisoners refused to admit their guilt and were unrepentant. He also urged that it would have been more intelligent to at least attach a "condition" to the commutations stating that the recipients would not commit or incite further acts of violence.

In a variety of ways, the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post hinted that the commutations might be “linked” to the first Democratic presidential primary that was to take place in Puerto Rico the following March. Everyone recognized that the 41 National Convention delegates at stake represented a fairly large number. Of course, there was at least one representative of the White House spokesperson who would go on the record with a variation of a standard response: “political considerations were pretty much out of the picture.”

But the accusations were similar to those made when Clinton's FALN pardons landed, in the shadow of his wife's campaign for the Senate. President Clinton had benefited from record Hispanic voter turnout in the 1996 election and, afterwards, the New York Daily News reported “top leaders” immediately began a “series” of meetings with White House aides to “press” for pardons. More importantly, from Mrs. Clinton’s standpoint, there were almost one million Puerto Ricans living in New York City. So, while the Washington Times pondered whether or not the President was blinded by “moral recklessness” or “amoral calculation,” the New York Times calmly guessed that his merciful act might “accrue” to his wife’s “political benefit” by “cementing her relationship with New York’s large Puerto Rican community.” Like other commentators, Michael Kelly of the Washington Post certainly had the opportunity to abruptly dismiss implied connections between Clinton’s use of the pardon power and the First Lady’s electoral fortunes. But Kelly could only agree that, while such suspicions might very well have been “absurd” with “any other” administration, the timing of the decision was “odd” and the Clinton administration was … different.

Different? Yes. But not that much different from that of Mr. Carter.

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