Out of the West: Pardon me, the story's not over yet

WASHINGTON - Here is a small festive-season puzzle to challenge the best of you. What do Joseph Bear, Alfredo Villareal and Caspar Weinberger have in common? The answer is that all three were among those pardoned on Christmas Eve by President George Bush, in the exercise of his powers under Article Two, Section Two (a) of the US Constitution.

Mr Bear, readers might be intrigued to learn, was sentenced in 1963 for stealing 12 six-packs of beer in an Indian reservation in Montana as a teenage prank. Mr Villareal was a postman put on probation in 1971 for stealing three letters. About Mr Weinberger's more recent problems with the law, however, there is no mystery. Had Mr Bush not intervened, the former defense secretary would have gone on trial next Tuesday for alleged misdeeds connected with the Iran-Contra affair, a quintessentially Washington 'who- knew-what-when' saga which all but toppled Ronald Reagan and which may have contributed marginally to the downfall of his successor.

The President chose his moment and his words with care. American papers do come out on Christmas Day, but virtually no one reads them. This is the season of charity, too: Mr Bush said he was acting in the 'healing tradition' of presidential pardons on behalf of Mr Weinberger, a 'true American patriot'.

Unfortunately, throughout the 200 years they have been employed, pardons have tended not so much to heal divisions as sharpen them - from Andrew Johnson's use of his 'benign prerogative of mercy' on behalf of Civil War rebels to the forgiveness extended to Second World War and Vietnam draft dodgers by Presidents Truman and Carter. And Mr Bush did not mention the most controversial pardon of them all, that of President Ford to Richard Nixon exactly one month after his predecessor had resigned rather than face impeachment.

And superficially, the parallels with that event abound. There are charges of conspiracy, cover- up, and deliberately concealed documents. But as a scandal, Watergate was deeply satisfying. From its humble beginning to the climax which transfixed the world, it lasted but two years. The bad guys were nailed to a man; apart from the identity of 'Deep Throat', just about every wrinkle to the tale is known. Iran-Contra, though, is a mess. 'All the facts may never be known,' concluded the report wrapping up the congressional investigation which ended in November 1987. Five years, books galore and dollars 31m ( pounds 20.26m) of public spending by a special prosecutor later, that judgement is intact.

Even the goalposts have shifted. The pertinent question is no longer the comparatively straightfoward matter of who planned and supported the clandestine operation to sell arms to Iran in 1985 and use the profits to finance the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Mr Weinberger, as even his foes acknowledge, opposed it from the start: his putative offence was to have lied to Congress to shield his boss. Nor can anyone dispute the vindictive, politicised nature of today's proceedings. The criminal charges, Mr Weinberger says, came about only because he would not accept a plea bargain letting him off with a misdemeanour, in return for fingering President Reagan or then Vice-President Bush. 'It's time to move on,' Mr Bush's statement urged, and most of us would say amen to that. But Washington being Washington, it won't happen.

Forty miles away in Baltimore - let alone in Chicago, Los Angeles or anywhere else in the real world - hardly a soul cares about Iran-Contra. But here, it's the hottest topic in town. Unfettered by term limits, budget or even the obligation to publish a final report, prosecutor Lawrence Walsh shows no sign of giving up the chase. But for this 81-year-old Captain Ahab of the law, only one white whale remains in the ocean: Mr Bush himself. So what next?

Maybe Mr Weinberger will be interrogated by a Grand Jury. The outgoing President could be hauled in for questioning, either by Congress before he leaves office, or by Mr Walsh sometime afterwards. Conceivably, as an ordinary citizen, he could be indicted. But that seems rather pointless. Yes, Mr Bush knew more than he's let on. But he was not a prime mover in the affair. Mr Reagan, on whose watch Iran-Contra took place, has been exonerated on the grounds he was merely asleep at the wheel. Meanwhile Colonel Oliver North, the truculent villain of the piece, was acquitted on a technicality and is said to be pondering a run for the Senate.

Maybe Mr Bush should have added his own name to those of Messrs Weinberger, Bear, Villareal and the rest. But can a President pardon himself? More to the point, who would be left to be investigated?

Roads to the Oval office, page 19

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