As he approaches his final weeks in office, President Clinton is weighing pardons for several high-profile figures that could revive debate over a practice that has stirred controversy since the days of knee breeches.
While presidents in recent years have been granting fewer and fewer pardons, the selections are increasingly being driven by politics - or at least perceived to be. The result is growing controversy over a presidential act that now often invokes fierce lobbying by activists on both sides of a candidate for clemency.
In the modern age, "the pardon is a politicized process," says Professor Herald Krent, associate dean at the Chicago-Kent College of Law in Illinois.
Five prominent people, all with political shadows following them, top Mr. Clinton's list for receiving pardons, which are often announced just before Christmas.
They include Michael Milken, the former junk-bond king, as well as three former Clinton associates from Arkansas, all related to the Whitewater scandals: Webster Hubbell, Archie Schaeffer, and Susan McDougal, who spent 21 months in prison for refusing to testify about the president's financial dealings in Arkansas.
Recent presidents have used pardons to get friends and fellow politicians out of trouble. These included Gerald Ford's Watergate reprieve for Richard Nixon, and George Bush's 1992 pardon of six figures in the Iran-Contra scandal, including his own former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.
That funny timing
In today's scandal-ridden atmosphere, many analysts believe presidential pardons are taking on a more partisan tone. Generally, presidents wait until the end of their tenure to grant the more controversial pardons, thus minimizing any political backlash.
Clinton is expected to make his announcements soon. The White House insists fairness - not politics - will drive its decisions.
"It's about what's just," says White House spokesman Jim Kennedy of Mr. Clinton's pardon record. "We'll let the rest speak for itself."
Mr. Milken, who pleaded guilty to six counts of securities fraud, served 22 months of a 10-year sentence and paid more than $1 billion in fines in the early 1980s.
His application for a pardon is being backed by supermarket mogul Ron Burkle, who is also a major contributor to the Democratic Party. Milken's financing was in part responsible for Mr. Burkle's rise to billionaire status.
Native American leader Leonard Peltier, in prison for the murder of two FBI agents in 1975, is another possibility. More than 500 FBI agents and former agents marched in front of the White House recently in opposition to Mr. Peltier's release.
The march was approved by FBI Director Louis Freeh, who was also a big supporter of continued investigation into the campaign-fundraising practices of Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
In the past, presidents have used pardons to heal wounds in the country or to prevent further unrest. Andrew Johnson issued a blanket amnesty to all Confederate soldiers who fought against the Union in the Civil War.
Jimmy Carter granted absolution to Vietnam draft evaders, thus preventing tens of thousands of people from going to trial in an already fractured country.
Clinton himself might be the object of President-elect George W. Bush's good graces, some speculate. If Clinton were ever to be convicted of any impeachment-related crimes, Mr. Bush might use the power to absolve Clinton. Some say such an act would be a way of healing both political and national rifts.
"I don't think a pardon for Clinton is out of the question at all," Professor Krent says. "It might be seen as statesmanlike and help heal wounds from the contested election."
But presidential acts of clemency have become rarer and rarer in recent administrations. President Bush and Clinton, for instance, have issued fewer pardons on average than any other chief executives in the past century.
As of last year, Clinton had only granted 75 pardons since he took office in 1993. Some years ago, says John Standish, a former pardon attorney, "presidents would grant 125 pardons a year."
Krent says the introduction of a parole system, whereby inmates have a chance of being released before their full sentence has been served, could be one reason presidents have relied less on pardons. There's just less need for them.
Others trace the drop to the 1988 presidential campaign. Then-Vice President Bush sharply criticized his opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, for releasing Willie Horton, who raped a woman while he was on parole.
When Bush pardoned Mr. Weinberger, says Donald Robinson, professor of government at Smith College, "harsh questions about fairness were raised. Not to mention when Ford pardoned Nixon. Will Bush pardon Clinton? I doubt it, but who knows? It would be a fairly spectacular act. Would Gore have pardoned Clinton? We'll never know."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society