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

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions