Pardon Power: Good Old Boys vs. Constitutional Scholar

The Mississippi Supreme Court has upheld two-term Republican  Gov. Haley Barbour’s pardons. This quintessential southern good old boy issued 203 of them in January on his last day in office, a hefty total for Mississippi. Barbour’s predecessor, Ronnie Musgrove, issued just one, to a fellow in the joint for a marijuana bust.

Under fierce attack, Barbour said 90 per cent of those involved had already been released from prison, some many years earlier and he’d acted in order to allow them to find employment, to get professional licenses, to vote, and – very important —  to hunt. Of course many of the pardons went to well-off folk and those with political ties to the governor, which is only to be expected. A posthumous pardon went to Leon Turner, a prisoner who’d helped around the house when Barbour’s father, a Circuit Court judge, was sick, dying when Haley was two.

Barbour had political battles over pardons through his political career in Mississippi,  some unedifying. This time he laid stress on Christian forgiveness and giving people a second chance, just like another Republican, Mike Huckabee  (1033 pardons and commutations) did when quitting the governor’s mansion in Arkansas. Mitt Romney, I should say, didn’t issue a single pardon in his term as governor of Massachusetts which shows as clearly as his treatment of his dog what a blazing, ineffable asshole he is.   Incidentally, they could do with more mercy in Mississippi which has the second highest rate of incarceration in the nation and a lopsided group of non-violent or drug offenders – 36 per cent compared to the national average of 20 per cent.

There’s something mythic about pardons, at least in the old days, when Robin Hood knelt to receive forgiveness from King Richard. These days the pardoning privilege  as held by the president and by governors (some in conjunction with pardoning boards) always throws a usefully bright light on the operations of the political system, as with Bush Sr’s  pardons of the Contra-gate conspirators, starting with Elliott Abrams; Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich; Bush Jr’s commutation of Scooter Libby’s sentence.

A pardon instills very remote hope in the citizenry that the system can offer the tiniest chink of light, like an IRS amnesty. A pardon can mean a nullification (such as jurors have the power – rarely used, alas —  to issue, this being  the pardoner’s belief that the law is unjust and should be set aside); the reversal of a moral injustice or of a disproportionate punishment; or of a frank admission of the power of a really hefty bribe, as with Rich, or Bush’s Sr’s pardon of Armand Hammer.

There’s been a downward trend in nullification, or compassion or maybe bribery since Lyndon Johnson, who pardoned 1,187 across five years. Nixon ran him second with 926, including Jimmy Hoffa. Ford pardoned 409 including Nixon, Robert E. Lee and Tokyo Rose. Carter, on his second day in office issued unconditional amnesties to draft resisters and among others pardoned Jefferson Davis and Patty Hearst (commutation). He pardoned 566.

With Reagan, a two term president, the numbers dipped to 406, including George Steinbrenner and Mark Felt, the subject of an absorbing piece by John Dean on our site this weekend. George Bush Sr had a chill heart,  beyond the mercy extended to Elliott Abrams and his old CIA buddies. He issued only 77 pardons in his single term. Across two terms Clinton bumped the number up to 459, including his brother Roger, Patty Hearst (full pardon), former CIA director John Deutch and 16 members of the Puerto Rican FALN.  Bush Jr, as merciless as his father, pardoned 200 across two terms.

And Obama? Merciless too, as befits someone whose concern for personal survival and advantage are always paramount. So far as I can determine, by the end of 2011 he’d pardoned 22. The worst? George Washington, with 16. The most forgiving? FDR, with 3,687.

Republican Death March Continues

“I am learning to say y’all and I like grits and things. Strange things are happening to me.”  This is Mitt Romney reaching out to the south. As one of the locals said, “If that isn’t skillful targeting of us Mississippians, I don’t know what is.”

Last Tuesday Mormon money and organization stopped crusading papism at least temporarily in its tracks, though Romney will have to do better in the south if he’s going to win on the first ballot in Tampa.. The primaries run till the end of June, concluding in Utah, which will crown Romney’s run through primary and caucus. Barring an act of God, Santorum’s in this instance, it looks as though Romney will be the Republican nominee, however many complicated calculations about delegate counts we have to put up with in the interim. Already menacing his march to the White House is the powerful Dog Owner vote. That business of transporting Seamus the Irish setter on the top of his station wagon for 12 hours,  is not going away, nor the news that Romney decreed the bathroom stops in advance before the car with wife, five kids and Seamus set forth.

Romney has survived, but at serious cost. A recent poll run by NBC News and  the Wall Street Journal discloses that 70 per cent of all respondents used harsh language to describe the Republican presidential race.

Forty percent said the GOP contest so far had made them feel less favorable about the party, with only  12 percent saying they now have a more favorable impression.

55 percent of respondents – including 35 percent of Republicans – thinks that  the Democratic Party does a better job than the GOP in appealing to those who aren’t hard-core supporters. Just 26 percent say the Republican Party does a better job on this front.

Romney’s favorable/unfavorable rating was 28 percent favorable and 39 percent unfavorable among all respondents (and 22/38 percent among independents). By contrast, John McCain’s at this point in 2008 was 47/27. The only candidate who did worse in the early spring of a presidential campaign year was Bill Clinton  in 1993 whose numbers were 32/43, but that was right after it had been disclosed that he spent most of the 1980s with his nose between Gennifer Flowers’ thighs, as fetchingly described in her memoir of their affair. By the summer of 1993 the voters had figured that this was Bill’s way and they didn’t really care.

People don’t like Romney that much, if at all,  and he’s given them scant reason to feel otherwise. Through the last months he’s flowered as a clumsy, cowardly  opportunist who roosts on every quarter of the political compass as circumstances seem to dictate.  Netanyahu’s in town? Romney’s right there at his side: “Look, one thing you can know and that is if we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if we elect Mitt Romney, if you elect me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon…”

Tumbril Time!

A  tumbril (n.)   a dung cart used for carrying manure, now associated with the transport of prisoners to the guillotine during the French Revolution.

It’s time to throw noted into the tumbril.  Article after article, I read that X “noted” and then Y “noted” and then Z “noted”. In the old days we took more trouble. Our sources and authorities  “pointed out” or “stressed ” or “hinted” or “explained” or sometimes simply just “said”.  We rang the changes. Now it’s just one single noted and it’s got to stop, with a summary thwock and a cackle from the tricoteuses.

Following  noted  up onto the scaffold will be penned.  Even though fountain pens, let alone quills, are as rare as tumbrils, I read more than I should of people “penning” an article, or sometimes “authoring” it which is nearly as bad. What’s wrong with “wrote”?

Richard Kidd writes from Winnipeg: “I would like to nominate two of President Obama’s favorite expressions. “Let me be clear,” or more commonly, “Let me be perfectly clear.”  If you want to be clear, then phrase your ideas clearly.  “Make no mistake…”  I suppose this qualifier is intended to warn listeners against misinterpretation, or perhaps against doubting the sincerity of the speaker.  It’s another of Obama’s annoying catch phrases that richly deserves tumbrilization.”

And from long-term CounterPuncher Glenn Ierley:

“Years ago, Edwin Newman inveighed in vain against the then common custom of commencing observations with the pointless interrogatory phrase ‘You know something?’ For want of a tumbril this phrase died a few years later of natural causes, but not before spreading its mutant spores.

“The recently hatched spawn of this is another pointless interrogatory phrase now appended to all too many observations, as I was reminded on seeing it occur not once, but twice, in a column by that fearless defender of the status quo, George Will. The offender? ‘Who knew?

You know something? Ask not for whom the tumbril rolls, it rolls for thee. Who knew? Best,  Glenn.”

I say Aye to these. Prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville will give the charges his usual scrupulous attention.

Our Latest Newsletter 

Decade after decade Dow Chemical battles any meaningful safety standard for one of the world’s most lethal toxins. Peter Lee reports from the battlefield. He opens his dossier thus:

“The dioxin war is an interesting test case as to whether the chemical companies have crossed the line from amoral (making the strongest case on behalf of their shareholders) to immoral (deliberately compromising the ability of the government to implement legitimate public health objectives) in their determined and expensive effort to delay the introduction of meaningful dioxin standards.

“Maybe Dow Chemical has crossed that line.”

From India Marina Forti reports on the bloody pillage by terror gangs of mineral-rich territory inhabited by India’s poorest tribes:

“The mineral belt and the tribal belt of India overlap almost exactly. And it is across this “overlapping map” of mineral, forests and tribal people that the conflict is raging. An old conflict – going back over decades of the dispossession of the tribals and marginal peoples – and yet very modern, for the rush to exploit the natural resources remains high in spite of the global economic downturn: iron ore to transform into steel, bauxite, coal to feed energy-hungry India’s thermal plants. So, the pressure on these lands, paddies and forests will grow, souring old conflicts, exasperating deep injustices and igniting new revolts.”

Here in Depression America JoAnn Wypijewski reports on God and cars in Kokomo.

New Covenant is a church of car nuts. Every summer it holds a car show in the parking lot. Rick Burgei retold the congregation’s foundation myth that Sunday. There was this 1968 Camaro, so beautiful in shiny yellow, and Rick loved that car. No sooner had he bought it than the Lord said to him, “Rick?”

“Yes, Lord.”

“Rick, will you sell that car?”

“Why, Lord, I just bought it.”

“I know, Rick, but one day I’m going to ask you to sell that car, and what will you say? Will you sell the car?”

“Ye-yes, Lord.”

And the Lord was satisfied. Ten years later He said, “Rick?”

“Yes, Lord?”

“It’s time to sell that car, and build my church.”

So began New Covenant, and the transformation of Rick Burgei from a n’ere do well, former drug addict and Catholic to the coiffed and burnished, prosperous pastor and regional televangelist that he is today.


Alexander Cockburn can be reached at

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.