WASHINGTON — At a time when President-elect Bush has to be searching for ways to reach out to disgruntled Democrats, a conservative voice is heard that just might provide a truly conciliatory gesture.
Scott Reed, manager of Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign and leader of a group pushing a conservative agenda, suggests Mr. Bush could go far in winning over the opposition by making his first act as president a pardon of Bill Clinton.
It seems certain now that independent counsel Robert Ray is going to try to get Mr. Clinton indicted after he leaves office. A Bush pardon would put an end to that - and to any other later efforts by anyone else to make Clinton legally accountable for what his critics view as acts of perjury and obstruction of justice, committed in connection with his relationships with Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky.
A Bush pardon would, indeed, be a move that would say quite convincingly to Democrats: "I'm willing to go the last mile to win you over - to let you know that I will be a president who will work with you to find solutions to pressing problems."
Clinton has said he wouldn't accept a pardon. But that's widely viewed as only a continuation of his denials that he has done anything illegal in the first place - and that for him to say otherwise would be a tacit admission of wrongdoing.
Mr. Reed heads a new group calling itself the Issues Management Center, which has initiated a grass-roots effort to build support for a five-point agenda: tax cuts, school vouchers, a prescription-drug plan, national defense reform, and Social Security privatization. That sounds like a fully conservative plan.
"I'm going to be in trouble with a lot of people," Reed said, after making the proposal. But he was smiling. Reed may well reflect the thinking of some top Republicans. And it might just be the kind of lightning-bolt move that would help heal the bitter division in this country.
This Reed pardon suggestion happened at a Monitor breakfast. I immediately said to Reed: "But when President Ford pardoned Nixon, it was the end of his administration - even before it had hardly begun." Indeed, after the pardon, shortly after Mr. Ford took office, his popularity dipped from the high 60s down to the 30s. And from then on he was never again able to muster the public support he needed to push through his agenda. So he was then forced to make his mark through a lot of vetoes - a dubious way to move a nation ahead.
Reed noted the Ford precedent, but thought the circumstances today were e different. And they are.
There are doubtless a lot of Americans, from both parties, who would be bitterly disappointed, even angry, if Clinton weren't tried. So, yes, Bush might well weaken the support of many of those who voted for him. But it wouldn't be the political disaster that Ford's pardoning of Nixon turned out to be.
Many of those who would be disappointed by a Clinton pardon wouldn't be comfortable seeing a former president in the dock. A lot of the same people who would feel Clinton hadn't been sufficiently punished for what they see as his misdeeds wouldn't want a president of their country - any president - to be so publicly disgraced. Also, those same disappointed Bush backers would have no other place to go. They would just have to cheer for George W. with a little (or a lot) less ardor.
The view of Ford's pardon of Nixon has changed with the years. Back then the verdict from media and public was that it was a stupid mistake. And certainly from a political standpoint, it was a monumental blunder.
At the time I had an interview with President Ford in which he defended the pardon in this way: He said that a trial of Nixon would extend the Watergate scandal and distract the public and the Congress so much that he would be unable even to get his administration started.
At the time, there were accusations that Ford had made a promise to Nixon that if he stepped down, he would pardon him. Ford denied this, saying he had foreseen this possibility and therefore made certain an aide was with him whenever he, as vice president, met with Nixon. In Robert Hartmann's "Palace Guard: An Inside Look at the Ford White House," this close associate of Ford's mentions this protective device Ford used when meeting with Nixon in the days before the beleaguered president resigned. In fact, Mr. Hartmann himself was usually the aide who accompanied Ford in these infrequent sessions with Nixon. Like Ford, Hartmann insists a "deal" was never even hinted at.
Well, if Bush should pardon Clinton, no one is going to charge there was any "deal."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society