Op-Eds by Jim

The Insult of Carter’s Mass Pardon

February 23, 2001
by James Webb, Letters to the Editor, The Wall Street Journal

It is a pleasurable experience to watch Bill Clinton finally being judged, even by his own party, for the ethical fraudulence that has characterized his entire political career. But allowing Jimmy Carter a free pass on the issue of presidential pardons, as was done in a recent piece by his former chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, on this page, ignores both the evidence of history and the trauma that President Carter visited on this country during his earliest days in office (“The First Grifters,” Feb. 20). Indeed, it could be said that the seeds of Bill Clinton’s political arrogance were sown by Jimmy Carter’s own hand.

While the Carter presidency may have handled cases of individual presidential pardons with great care, Mr. Carter’s first official act as president was to pardon, en masse, all those who had been or could be charged with draft evasion during the Vietnam era. Motivated by the ever-present desire of American politicians to “heal the wounds” of the Vietnam War, and beyond doubt manipulated by the army of antiwar McGovernites who had seized control of the Democratic Party, Mr. Carter’s gesture had the symbolic effect of elevating everyone who had opposed the Vietnam War to the level of moral purist, and by implication insulting those who often had struggled just as deeply with the moral dimensions of the war and had decided, often at great sacrifice, to honor the laws of their country and serve.

President Carter’s all-embracing pardon of Americans who refused to serve in the military was without precedent. After World War II, President Truman had given full amnesty on a case-by-case basis to a limited number of draft evaders, but only after they had actually been convicted of the offense and then appealed to a review board that examined the circumstances of their cases. Following World War I, President Roosevelt had pardoned those who had been convicted of draft violations and had served out their prison terms, but did not extend even this limited pardon to those who had left the country. Much was said about President Lincoln’s sweeping pardon of Confederate soldiers after the Civil War, but this gesture was made to those who had indeed served, honoring the judgments of their state governments. Lincoln made this distinction clear in his remarks when issuing the pardons, and by pointedly refusing to extend such amnesty to Confederate officials and men of property.

Nor did President Carter’s abuse of power end with the pardoning of draft evaders. Some had criticized this blanket amnesty as having made class distinctions between college boys who were “enlightened” enough to oppose the draft and blue-collar boys who had gone into the military and then either seen the light regarding the war or suffered the supposed abuses of the military system. Liberal groups and antiwar politicians assailed the “inequities” of military justice and the “randomness” of its characterization of service when one left the military, despite the fact that 97% of those who served during Vietnam had been discharged under honorable circumstances. Within weeks of pardoning all the draft evaders, Mr. Carter invoked his powers as commander in chief and ordered that the “bad paper” military discharges of hundreds of thousands of deserters, malcontents and nonperformers be mandatorily upgraded, so long as they met one of six easily attained criteria.

Again President Carter had upset a delicately balanced apple cart among the Vietnam generation. By wiping the slate clean for those who had dodged the draft or created problems while in the military, he signaled to those who had served honorably during a horribly emotional period that their self-discipline, loyalty, wounds and even deaths did not matter. The Congress, and particularly the Committees on Veterans Affairs, where I then served as a House counsel, spent the next six months in emotional argument and negotiation. The House and Senate at times engaged in heated floor debates and recriminations before some measure of historical standards were mandated to accompany any veterans benefits awarded to recipients of Mr. Carter’s falsely upgraded discharges.

These acts resonate when one evaluates Bill Clinton’s incessantly arrogant presidency, from the endless string of conscious and serious abuses of power to the “conversion” of White House furniture and china on his way out the door. For what we are seeing are the echoes of a pervasive elitism, from people who were taught when young that the laws that applied to their countrymen did not necessarily apply to them.

As one who shares Mr. Clinton’s ethnic background, and whose family was not afforded the opportunity for higher education until this generation, it is irritating beyond words to see commentators repeatedly refer to his actions as “redneck” or typical of “white trash” behavior. Rednecks might hang a velvet picture of Elvis on their living room wall, but precious few would tolerate any sort of conduct that might demean the greatness of their country, much less take part in it. Check the casualty lists in any war. See who stands tall and salutes when the flag passes by. Note who wasn’t sleeping in Lincoln’s bedroom when Bill Clinton occupied the White House.

Instead, Bill and Hillary’s misadventures provide an echo of a different time and place, another set of values. Of bright students brought to good schools and becoming convinced, as Ben Stein wrote of his years at Yale Law School with the Clintons, “that we were supermen, floating above history and precedent, the natural rulers of the universe. . . . The law did not apply to us.” Of young men who not only avoided service when 58,000 of their peers were dying, but who persuaded a softie like Jimmy Carter to say that they were right, all of them, without distinction. The law? The law was what you made it.

Americans, bred on fairness and passionate about equality, have a way of collectively summing things up as time goes by. It is accurate to say that Jimmy Carter’s presidency never fully recovered from his naive but well-intentioned opening moments. And one can predict that Bill Clinton will never live down the arrogance of his final departure.