When Jim Lehrer of PBS asked President Clinton in an interview if he thought Whitewater special counsel Kenneth Starr was out to get him and his wife, the president replied, "Isn't that obvious?" When Lehrer asked if Mr. Clinton would consider pardons for convicted Whitewater defendants, the president replied their cases "should be handled like others," through the regular process.
The regular process involves recommendations from the Justice Department after careful study of petitions. You would probably not recognize the names of the 53 ordinary persons pardoned by President Clinton among the more than 13,000 pardons issued in this century.
But some presidential pardons are clearly not regular, like those given by President Reagan to George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees, and by President Bush to oil tycoon Armand Hammer - both convicted of making illegal contributions to the Nixon campaign.
Nor was there anything regular about President Ford's pardon of ex-President Nixon to head off the indictment that Nixon faced once out of office. A week before Nixon's resignation, his chief of staff, Alexander Haig, had discussed the idea of a preemptive pardon with Vice President Ford. Such pardons are a form of presidential revisionism, not simply acts of mercy but vetoes of special prosecutors.
Reagan did not pardon any of the Iran-contra defendants, but Bush was more generous. He decided independent counsel Lawrence Walsh had gone to the point of criminalizing policy differences. Bush pardoned the indicted former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, and also former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, former State Department official Elliott Abrams, and former CIA officers Duane Clarridge, Alan Fiers, and Clair George.
Now we come to Whitewater. Former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, Webster Hubbell, David Hale, and James and Susan McDougal have already been convicted. Who knows who's next, or how close this investigation will come to the White House? Ford, Reagan, and Bush have set the precedent for using the pardon to override special prosecutors they considered biased. Clinton says it is obvious Starr is biased, but it would set still another precedent for a president to exercise clemency covering convictions obtained during his own administration.
All that can be said now is that the pardon power is virtually unlimited and that President Clinton hasn't ruled out its use. Something for Little Rock defendants to think about when they consider how much to cooperate with the prosecution.
*Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.