As he left the Oval Office, former President Clinton did not grab attention with his usual tools of spin or inflated rhetoric. There was no emphatic finger-wagging, no manufactured claims of executive privilege, no land grabs.
Instead, Clinton created a national firestorm by exercising a legal constitutional prerogative: He granted 177 pardons and sentence commutations during his final hours in the White House, including some to campaign contributors, potential witnesses against him, drug peddlers and fugitive commodities broker Marc Rich.
The appearance of trading pardons for contributions is by now well known. With former President Carter's denunciation of the Rich pardon as "disgraceful," little more needs to be said about the underlying facts. Congressional hearings and a Justice Department criminal probe eventually will sort the wheat from the chaff here. But Clinton's pardon orgy has created a larger problem. His conduct has led some to question whether the constitutional pardon power should be changed.
When the public trust has been violated, there is a predictable outpouring of anger. One congressman has introduced a constitutional amendment to restrict the presidential pardon power. Yet the solution should not be throwing out our legal heritage because a rogue executive may have soiled the constitutional bathwater.
Pardon power abuse is not a failure of the Constitution or of the founders. Pardon power abuse is personal to the executive who improperly exercises his authority.
The solution is a basic one: Citizens should pay careful attention to selecting the people we entrust with elective office. How do we ensure there will not be future abuses? By taking seriously our obligation to elect leaders that view their oath to protect the Constitution with the same fidelity that our founders had.
When we fail this basic act of citizenship, then we get the government and leaders we deserve.