What makes up a presidential legacy? Is it the sum of foreign and domestic policy or the president’s approval rating when leaving office? There has been a lot of talk about what President Obama’s legacy will be and in January we’re going to get an idea about what that may look like. A mere three months away from now, but a lot can happen in three months.
Consider three months ago anyone who said Trump would win the 2016 Presidential election was made to feel like Copernicus telling everyone the world wasn’t flat – we all know how that turned out. Even so, it is anyone’s guess what could happen between now and January to affect future perception of Obama’s presidency, but for now we can speculate with a fair bit of accuracy about what his legacy will definitely include.
Surely, steering the US out the greatest depression since 1929 would be mentioned, so too should trying to bring affordable healthcare to millions of Americans who need it. All while keeping his composure in the face of an openly obstructionist congress and vocal questions about his suitability for the job of President of the United States. If we judged his legacy solely on the depth of character he displayed amid that kind of opposition, then one might imagine Obama’s face soon being added to Mount Rushmore. My guess would be sometime in the future when today’s millennials suddenly find themselves to be the smartest people in the room and are reluctantly dragged into positions of power.
But to this author, policy and perception isn’t enough to define a legacy. That you need an idea of a President’s personal motivations to put their policies into perspective. It is one thing to champion a cause because it is the right thing to do. It is quite another to do so thinking mainly of the positive perception it will create about you.
Case in point is President Lyndon B Johnson. Johnson’s legacy is largely defined by his passing the Voter Registration Act of 1965. The land mark civil rights act prohibited discrimination against Blacks and minorities when exercising their right to vote. The perception created was that Johnson was a champion of the civil rights movement. Right there along with Martin Luther King Jr., Congressman John Lewis, Eldridge Cleaver and Rosa Parks. This would be a false perception.
We now know that Johnson’s motivations were mostly political. That the DNC leadership had realized the untapped potential of the black and minority vote and sought to keep blacks and minorities forever voting democrat by being the party that championed their greatest social victory since President Lincoln freed the slaves.
His power play largely worked. Today, black republicans do exist but if you’re curious as to how they are viewed by minorities still loyal to the DNC – see the Copernicus reference above. We also know that in his private conversations he referred to the Voter Registration Act as “The Nigger Bill”. To me this would not be enough to label him a racist. A phony champion of civil rights? probably.
After all, this was the 60’s and the racial epitaph was common in many circles that vehemently rebuke the word today. One could even argue that today, the only reason the word has become popularized in music and movies is because black people still refer to each other using it. But it was Johnson having the presence of mind to switch between “Nigra” and “Negra”, in the presence of southerners – reflecting their regional terms for black people, which to me showed a level of familiarity with racism that went a little deeper than a just commonly used word of the epoch.
This is one of the reasons why I look to Executive Clemency for perspective on what issues a US president held strong opinions on, or who he felt had been wronged by the criminal justice system. Often, with a little research, they can also tell you who had been whispering in the President’s ear. Commonly known as the Presidential pardons, they are almost always controversial and yet, are never given more than a passing mention in the media. A sitting president can issue a pardon at any time during their presidency but some reserve them for the last few weeks and sometimes days of their Presidency.
Looking back at whom the last six presidents exercised Executive Clemency on, can offer a glimpse into who these leaders might have been if they were just everyday people – living in the same convoluted world of diverging motivations as we do – yet suddenly being granted the power to try and make sense of it. Let’s start with President Jimmy Carter.
Since leaving office in 1980, Carter has been vocal on many social issues and has sought to raise awareness of the plight of Palestinians living in Israel. In 2006 he wrote, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid. Published by Simon and Schuster, in the book Carter argues that Israel’s continued control and colonization of Palestinian land have been the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement in the Middle East. During his presidency, Jimmy Carter pardoned, commuted or rescinded the convictions of 566 people during his term, including most notably:
- Vietnam draft dodgers – Unconditional amnesty issued in the form of a pardon
- Jefferson Davis – President of the Confederate States of America.
- Patty Hearst – Convicted of Bank Robbery; sentence commuted
- Lolita Lebrón, – Rafael Cancel Miranda, Irving Flores Rodriguez – machine-gunning the U.S. House of Representatives and wounding five Congressmen in 1954; clemency
- Frederic B. Ingram – Heir from Tennessee, convicted of bribing government officials in Illinois; jailed for 16 months. His sentence was commuted by Carter in December 1980.
Republican President, Ronald Reagan commuted or rescinded the convictions of 406 people during his term. In living up to the cowboy persona created in his younger days as a Hollywood movie star, one of them was a moonshiner. He also dealt with the remaining fall-out from Watergate in his notable pardons.
- Junior Johnson – Moonshining; pardoned
- George Steinbrenner – Was convicted of illegal Nixon campaign contributions and obstruction of justice; pardoned
- Marvin Mandel – former Governor of Maryland convicted of mail fraud and racketeering; clemency; conviction later overturned in S. district court.
- Mark Felt and Edward S. Miller – FBI officials convicted of authorizing illegal break-ins. Mark Felt later in life admitted to being Deep Throat, the informant during the Watergate affair.
Surprisingly, President George H. W. Bush pardoned, commuted or rescinded the convictions of only 77 people during his term. The low number is counter-balanced by the fact that many of them were involved in the Iran-Contra Affair.
- Elliott Abrams
- Duane Clarridge
- Clair George
- Alan D. Fiers
- Robert C. McFarlane – National Security Adviser to President Ronald Reagan
- Caspar Weinberger – Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan
- Armand Hammer – CEO of the Occidental Petroleum Company, contributed $110,000 to the Republican National Committee just prior to his pardon. Pardoned for illegally contributing $54,000 to Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign in 1972.
- Joseph Occhipinti – Federal drug agent convicted of violation of civil rights, perjury and deprivation of rights. Commuted.
- Myra Soble – 1957 conviction for her involvement in the Rosenberg spy ring; pardoned
President, Bill Clinton pardoned, commuted or rescinded the convictions of 459 people during his term. President Clinton chose to make a third of them on his last day of office which started yet another scandal for the Clintons, this one known as “Pardongate”. It had emerged that Tony Rodham, Hillary Clinton’s younger brother, had traded on his access to the President through his sister and had received about US$325,000 to lobby on behalf of Edgar and Vonna Jo Gregory detailed below. Other notables include:
- Roger Clinton, Jr. – brother of Bill Clinton. After serving a year in federal prison for cocaine possession.
- Almon Glenn Braswell – convicted of mail fraud and perjury; pardoned
- Patty Hearst – Bank robbery. Prison term commuted by Jimmy Carter. She was released from prison in 1979. She was fully pardoned by Clinton in 2001.
- Marc Rich, Pincus Green – business partners; indicted by U.S. Attorney on charges of tax evasion and illegal trading with Iran.
- Dan Rostenkowski – Democrat from Illinois. Served his entire sentence, then pardoned.
- Fife Symington III – Republican Governor of Arizona convicted of bank fraud; pardoned.
- Susan McDougal – partners with Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton in the failed Whitewater Guilty of contempt of court, she served her entire sentence and was then pardoned.
- Henry Cisneros – Clinton’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count for lying to the FBI, and was fined $10,000.
- Edward Downe, Jr. – wire fraud, filing false income tax returns, and securities fraud; pardoned
- Elizam Escobar – seditious conspiracy; pardoned
- Samuel Loring Morison – espionage and theft of government property; pardoned
- Mel Reynolds – Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives.
- Henry O. Flipper – The first black West Point cadet was found guilty of “conduct unbecoming an officer” in 1882.
- John Deutch – Director of Central Intelligence, former Provost and University Professor, MIT
- Rick Hendrick – NASCAR Team Owner & Champion; convicted of mail fraud; pardoned
- Edgar and Vonna Jo Gregory – Carnival operators convicted of bank fraud.
- FALN – commuted the sentences of 16 members of FALN, a violent Puerto Rican terrorist group that set off 120 bombs in the United States, mostly in New York City and Chicago. The 16 were convicted of conspiracy and sedition and sentenced with terms ranging from 35 to 105 years in prison.
- Lyle Prouse – Pilot convicted of flying drunk
Like his dad, President George W. Bush showed himself to be an agent of the bureaucracy of government. He pardoned, commuted or rescinded the convictions of 200 people during his term. Among them were government employees and officials convicted of perjury and in another surprise, one rapper.
- Lewis “Scooter” Libby – Assistant to President George W. Bush and Chief of Staff to Dick Cheney was convicted of perjury in connection with the CIA leak scandal involving members of State Department who ‘outed’ CIA agent Valerie Plame. Libby received commutation, not a full pardon.
- José Compeán and Ignacio Ramos – Two US Border Patrol agents who wounded drug smuggler Osvaldo Aldrete Dávila and tried to cover up the incident received commutation.
- Charles Winters – Posthumous pardon for smuggling three B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers to Israel in the late 1940s
- Issac Robert Toussie – Convicted of making false statements to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; pardoned and the pardon revoked one day later
- Edwin L. Cox Jr.– Convicted in 1988 for bank fraud
- John Forté – Hip-hop singer and songwriter sentenced for smuggling cocaine was commuted.
As of October 2016, President Barack Obama has pardoned or commuted the convictions of 942 people during his term of office. The highest among the last six Presidents with a disturbingly high number of people convicted for serious drug offenses. I am usually quick to defend Obama if I feel he is being judged too harshly, but the evidence suggests that on his way up to the Presidency, he made some friends in low places.
- Timothy James Gallagher – of Navasota, Texas, sentenced in 1982 to three years of probation for cocaine possession and conspiracy to distribute.
- Roxane Kay Hettinger – Powder Springs, Ga., sentenced in 1986 to 30 days in jail and three years of probation for conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
- Edgar Leopold Kranz Jr – of Minot, N.D., who received 24 months of confinement and a pay reduction for cocaine use, adultery and bouncing checks.
- Floretta Leavy – of Rockford, Ill., sentenced in 1984 to 366 days in prison and three years of parole for drug offenses.
- Scoey Lathaniel Morris – of Crosby, Texas, sentenced in 1991 to three years of probation and $1,200 restitution for counterfeiting offenses.
- Sharanda Jones – sentenced to life with no chance of parole due to cocaine use and supplying.
Of special note is President John F. Kennedy. He pardoned, commuted or rescinded the convictions of 575 people during his shortened term. Among them were all of the first-time offenders convicted of crimes under the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 – in effect overturning much of the law passed by Congress and dealing a major blow to the burgeoning prison industrial complex of the time.
It will be interesting to see who President Obama further extends Executive Clemency to. With only three months left and the world focused on the specter of Trump’s looming inauguration. If there was ever a time to issue a controversial pardon, now would be it. I’ll be watching closely.