President George Bush's reputation will suffer from his decision, announced Christmas Eve, to pardon former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and five other figures suspected or convicted of breaking the law in the Iran-Contra scandal.
Bush justified his decision positively and negatively. Positively, he praised the men he pardoned as patriots and public servants who, whatever the legality of their acts, had not profited from them. Negatively, he attacked the Ethics in Government Act under which Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh was appointed as "a profoundly troubling development in the political and legal climate of our country: the criminalization of policy differences." Such differences, he said, should be addressed in "the voting booth, not the courtroom."
There is, of course, another view of the matter. Walsh himself, in a withering response to the charge that he had criminalized political differences, said: "A lie to Congress is not a matter of political opinion. It is a crime."
The sale of arms to Iran and the diversion of profits to the Contras were actions taken against democratically agreed upon policies of the country. Those who undertook those actions were prosecuted not because they opposed the policies--that much would be mere political difference--but because they illegally enacted their opposition. At a stroke, by undermining the investigation at what may be its most crucial moment, the President has made himself the central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal.
Walsh claims that Weinberger's notes "contain evidence of a conspiracy among the highest-ranking Reagan Administration officials to lie to Congress and the American public. Because the notes were withheld from investigators for years, many of the leads were impossible to follow, key witnesses had reportedly forgotten what was said and done, and statutes of limitation had expired."
Walsh added Thursday that his office had learned on Dec. 11 that Bush failed to produce to investigators his own highly relevant contemporaneous notes, despite repeated requests. Walsh called Bush's refusal "misconduct" and said that "appropriate action" would follow.
It is likely that the Ethics in Government Act will be renewed after President-elect Bill Clinton's inauguration. It is also conceivable that Walsh's appointment as independent counsel will also be renewed.
Sadly, for those who saw President Bush ending his tenure with dignity and vigor, these pardons will have an effect opposite to the one intended. They will not put Iran-Contra to rest. They will not disentangle the President's own reputation from all that Iran-Contra represents.