A blizzard of coverage gave the impression that Bill Clinton's final pardons raised unprecedented ethical issues about pardons being given in return for favors or to questionable recipients. But are the issues really unprecedented--or have media simply failed to raise these questions with previous administrations? A look back at the elder George Bush's pardons shows that there was plenty of fodder for scandal that the media just weren't that interested in.
One of the main complaints about Clinton's pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich was that Rich's ex-wife, Denise Rich, had given some $450,000 to Clinton's presidential library fund. But Texas oilman Edwin L. Cox gave between $100,000 and $250,000 to Bush's library after Bush pardoned his bank-defrauding son, Edwin Cox Jr., in 1993. The possibility that there might have been a quid pro quo did not attract the attention of the New York Times, L.A. Times, Washington Post or the network nightly news, all of which failed to even mention the Cox pardon.
Time.com (3/6/01), one of the few outlets to ever discuss the Cox pardon, then or now, was quick to point out supposed differences between that case and the controversial Clinton pardons. For one thing, according to Time.com, Bush didn't begin raising funds for his library until he was out of office in 1993. (But Jim Cicconi, the vice president of the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette-- 5/25/97--that fundraising began in 1991.)
Time.com noted that Rich's contributions came before the pardon, whereas Cox's were made afterwards. But that wouldn't explain why journalists paid so little attention to Bush's 1989 pardon of industrialist Armand Hammer, who had been convicted of illegally contributing $54,000 to President Richard Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign. Hammer proved he could make legal as well as illegal contributions, donating $200,000 to the Republican Party and the Bush/Quayle inauguration committee in the months before his pardon (Salon.com, 2/27/01).
But despite this largesse, and despite the fact that Hammer was a well-known business figure, his pardon drew scant mention in the press: It was reported four times in the New York Times, L.A. Times and Washington Post in 1989, and didn't come up at all on the network nightly news. (By contrast, the Rich pardon came up at least 175 times in those papers in 2001, and 68 times on the nightly news.)
Time.com claimed that "the bank fraud for which Cox pleaded guilty is not seen as heinous as the cocaine-dealing conviction of Carlos Vignali, whose prison term was commuted by Clinton and who was also the son of a generous donor." But the elder Bush's complete roster of pardons need bow to no one when it comes to heinousness.
Vignali had served six years of a 15-year term for cocaine trafficking; although he was repeatedly linked in the press to "800 pounds of cocaine," at his sentencing he was actually found to be responsible for 11 to 30 pounds of coke (The Nation, 4/9/01)--worth roughly $75,000 to $200,000. Compare that to Aslam Adam, a Pakistani national who had done eight years of a 55-year sentence for importing $1.5 million worth of heroin into the United States when Bush commuted his sentence in 1993 (Salon.com, 2/27/01). While Vignali's commutation received heavy coverage--66 mentions in the New York Times, L.A. Times and Washington Post, and another 13 reports on the nightly network news--Adam's clemency got exactly one story in any of these outlets at the time (Washington Post, 1/22/93), and that report failed to mention how much heroin he had brought in.
Of course, the Vignali case drew national press attention because of the intercession of Clinton's brother-in-law, Hugh Rodham; media reports questioned the propriety of a family member getting involved in the pardon process. But a family connection didn't garner much extra attention for one of the most frightening clemency recipients ever: anti-Castro militant Orlando Bosch, who was released under house arrest by Bush in 1990 after being held for two years for illegally entering the country. Bosch was involved, as U.S. officials believe, in the bombing of a Cuban civilian airliner that killed 73 people (Newsweek, 9/4/89); the Justice Department has linked him to at least 30 acts of sabotage (New York Times, 11/11/89).
When Bush got Bosch out of jail, the New York Times (which called the Cuban exile "one of the hemisphere's most notorious terrorists") pointed out that Bush's son Jeb, then an up-and-coming Republican leader in Florida, had lobbied for his release (7/20/90). The evident motive: currying favor with hard-core anti-Castro Cubans in the Miami area. But while the Times and a few other publications expressed outrage, the politically motivated release of a violent criminal hardly became a national scandal: It was mentioned 26 times in the New York Times, L.A. Times and Washington Post, and got only one reference on the nightly network news (CBS, 7/17/90).