As we come again to Christmas Eve, our thoughts turn towards tomorrow and all that Christmas will bring. Although gifts should not be the main focus of the day, it is a central part of the ceremony that many people will experience in their homes. According to Merriam-Webster, a gift is “something that is given to another person or to a group or organization.” For the kid in us, this simple definition applies as when we visit family and friends to exchange gifts with each other in the hope of getting something “really good.” However, there is a more specific definition of gift that appeals to what Abraham Lincoln famously called “the better angels of our nature.” According to Dictionary.com a gift is “something given voluntarily without payment in return, as to show favor toward someone, honor an occasion, or make a gesture of assistance; present.” This definition is embodied in the noble way that not enough of us give as charity to those who are we know cannot every repay us equally. Examples of charity are helping at a food pantry or a homeless shelter. In all of these cases, the values of these gifts are somewhat dependent on the resources available to the gift-giver.
Nowhere is the need for great resources more apparent than when the gift is a pardon for past crimes or accusations of crimes or a commutation of a prison sentence. This type of gift, a pardon or commutation, takes much more power or influence than most of us will ever have. As seems appropriate for the season, these “gifts” have been given at Christmas Eve. A timely example of this is the giving of a posthumous Royal pardon today (12/24/2013) of British mathematician Alan Turing for the crime of “gross indecency” (i.e. homosexual acts). In this edition of the History Rhyme, we will look at two examples where American Presidents have exercises their power of pardon or commute sentences on Christmas Eve to see how these examples are noteworthy and what they say or even what they do not say about these powerful men.
Our first example of a Presidential Christmas Eve pardon occurred on 12/24/1992 when George H.W. Bush pardoned six men who had been who had been involved in the Iran-Contra Affair. The most well-known of the six was former Secretary of Defense, Caspar W. Weinberger. An interesting aspect of Bush’s pardon was that Weinberger had not yet been convicted of a crime. Instead, he was scheduled to stand trial on 1/5/1993 for lying to Congress. According to a Christmas Even story by David Johnston in the New York Times, the prosecution was going to focus their case “on Mr. Weinberger’s private notes that contain references to Mr. Bush’s endorsement of the secret shipments to Iran.” With the pardon, the case as well as an independent investigation of Iran-Contra by Lawrence Walsh ended.
Why did President Bush pardon his old associate? According Mr. Walsh, the answer was quite obvious. Although Bush was not a direct target of Walsh’s investigation, Walsh had been trying to obtain a diary that Bush had kept in 1986 that contained “highly relevant contemporaneous notes” on Iran-Contra but those efforts had been blocked by what Walsh called Bush’s “misconduct.” Walsh said that “in light of President Bush’s own misconduct, we are gravely concerned about his decision to pardon others who lied to Congress and obstructed official investigations” and that “the Iran-contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed.” Of course the President did not agree with the independent investigator’s assessment. According to a statement released along with the pardons, President Bush stated that the pardons were not part of a cover-up and asserted that “no impartial person has seriously suggested that my own role in this matter is legally questionable.”
Our second example of a Christmas Even Presidential pardon or commutation was when President Warren G. Harding commuted the sentence of American Socialist leader Eugene E. Debs on 12/24/1921. The reason Debs needed a pardon was that he had been imprisoned in 1919 for violating the Espionage Act of 1917 which outlawed speaking out against American involvement in the First World War. According to the terms of the law, Debs was guilty as charged for he did urge resistance to the military. So he, like Alan Turing, was in need of a intervention by those in power to be free (even if modern viewers might question the validity of the laws in question).
What is different from the Bush-Weinberger example was that neither of these men knew each other personally, worked with each other professionally or even shared the same political philosophy. To start with, Debs (still in prison at that time) and Harding (then a Republican Senator from Ohio) had been opponents in the 1920 Presidential election. Prior to that time, Debs had stated in 1919 that “from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet I am Bolshevik, and proud of it. Furthermore, Debs had stated in 1908 that “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.” Contrast these views to those of Warren Harding (R-OH) who was best known for saying “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; nor revolution, but restoration” and you can easily see that Harding had nothing to gain politically or personally from commuting Debs’ sentence.
So why did Harding let Debs out of prison? The simple answers according to the 12/24/21 White House statement about the commutation was that (1) “he was by no means as rabid and outspoken in his expressions as many others, and but for his prominence and the resulting far-reaching effect of his words, very probably might not have received the sentence he did,” and (2) “he is an old man, not strong physically.” So, despite Harding’s view that “he is a man of much personal charm and impressive personality, which qualifications make him a dangerous man calculated to mislead the unthinking and affording excuse for those with criminal intent,” Debs was set free and actually was greeted at the White House by President Harding who remarked to the Socialist leader “well, I’ve heard so damned much about you, Mr. Debs, that I am now glad to meet you personally.”
After examining these two examples of a Presidential Christmas Eve pardon what conclusions can we make other than that Warren Harding is more quote-worthy than George H.W. Bush? Are we to suggest that George H. W. Bush made poor choices while Warren Harding made good ones? From these two instances, it would be easy to think that way. Then again, these two events are arguably where we see Bush at his worst while we see Harding at his best. From this brief examination of the two events by someone who is not familiar with history, it would be tempting to think that Harding must have been a president who has been viewed well by history, while the elder Bush has not.
Well, that is why the History Rhymer is here. The answer, my dear readers, is that the opposite view has been held by history. Warren Harding was well-liked during his time and did make some efforts to return the United States to “normalcy” during his time in office. Unfortunately, he was not very good at consistently picking members of his government that were honest or honorable. Harding was aware of this as shown by one of my favorite quotes from him “I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies in a fight. But it is my friends, my goddamned friends, they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor at nights!” After his death in 1923, numerous scandals emerged such as the notorious Teapot Dome scandal (Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall took bribes in exchange for low-cost drilling leases in Wyoming) and even a personal scandal where it was alleged that Harding fathered an illegitimate child. All of these helped contribute to the generally poor rating Harding has received from historians. On the other hand, the Bush administration was not scandal prone and has been viewed more favorably by history than he was in 1992 when he was defeated by Bill Clinton in his bid for re-election. According to a 2009 C-SPAN survey of presidential rankings, Bush is now ranked 18th while Harding is near the bottom at 38th.
Perhaps in the end there are no real conclusions to make other than the reasoning behind Christmas Eve pardons or commutations are not consistent. History at times can be aggravatingly unhelpful in making conclusions on two events or even a series of events. The temptation is to see links when they do not really exist or to make comparisons that may not be valid in a wider context. Sometimes the most we can gain from looking at history is the ability to say “well, that is interesting.” What’s wrong with that? Sometimes the fact that we found some event memorable is what helps us to keep it present in our minds so that we are ready to see true linkages when the time is right. Keep looking and learning in the year to come and we will have more to look at together.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
The History Rhymer
The History Rhyme posts and additional information about the author are also available at TheHistoryRhyme.com.