When loyalty usurps moral judgment

It started with the leak of the identity of Valerie Plame, the CIA undercover officer whose husband had accused the Bush administration of deceiving the nation about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It ended with the long and arduous investigation by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, which takes its place in the annals of scandals that reached the doorstep of the White House.

Once again, we are reminded of the words of that old Washington adage often attributed to Richard Nixon: "It's not the act that kills you. It's the coverup; it's the lie."

The Nixon history also reminds us of how presidents sometimes act when their aides get into trouble serving them. President Nixon forced the resignations of chief of staff H.R. Haldeman and adviser John Ehrlichman, and let them go to jail when he could have pardoned them. President Bush the elder, for example, did grant pardons to former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and five others facing indictment for withholding information in the Iran-contra scandal.

The presidential pardon can be a powerful instrument, overriding conviction, overriding indictment. It can even be extended to someone before any legal action has been taken. The Clinton pardons to friends and friends of friends left an unpleasant mark on the last days of the Clinton presidency. But perhaps the most controversial pardon of all was the one that may have contributed to President Ford's losing the 1976 election, the pardon of Nixon shortly after he had resigned from office rather than face impeachment. Nixon had let it be known to Vice President Gerald Ford that a pardon might be the price of his resignation. As president, Mr. Ford denied that there had been any deal.

It's a little early to raise the question of whether President Bush will grant pardons to Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff Lewis Libby, and anyone else who may have been involved in the now famous CIA leak, but this may be the time to recall the words of John Ehrlichman, who served 18 months for perjury, "I went and lied and I'm paying the price for that lack of willpower. In effect, I abdicated my moral judgments and turned them over to somebody else."

There is a way that those who serve the president sometimes substitute personal loyalty for moral judgment. It may have happened again.

Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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