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A More Historic Act of Clemency

Roundup
tags: Obama, marijuana, Pardon



 Zach Hidin is an assistant editor at The Atlantic.

... “On the ride up Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day, I told Barack Obama about my frustrations with the pardon system,” George W. Bush recalled in his memoir. “I gave him a suggestion: announce a pardon policy early on, and stick to it.”

That morning, Bush ended his presidency with 189 pardons to his name, fewer than sworn punishers like Ronald Reagan (393) or Richard Nixon (863) or, for that matter, every two-term president since Thomas Jefferson. Of those 189, seven were black, four Latino, one Asian, and the other 176, white. Nevertheless a memo obtained by USA Today last April revealed that President Obama’s pardon policy early on was “largely modeled after the policy of George W. Bush.”

There’s a spin-lesson in all this—if you want to exaggerate any measure of progress, use the last half-century as a denominator. Compared with the last few administrations, commuting the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders may seem historic. But history sets the bar higher still.

Commuting the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders may seem historic. But history sets the bar higher still.

In May 1919, Woodrow Wilson was in Paris negotiating the Treaty of Versailles. It’s hard to think of a moment when any president had a better reason to shelve domestic affairs, but on Monday, May 12, Wilson telegraphed his secretary in Washington: “Please ask the Attorney General to advise me what action I can take with regard to removing the ban from the manufacture of drink.” A week later Wilson sent another cable, this time to Congress: “It seems to me entirely safe now to remove the ban upon the manufacture and sale of wines and beers.”

Congress declined, and instead introduced a bill to shore up the Eighteenth Amendment, known as the Volstead Act. Wilson vetoed the Act. Congress overrode his veto. With no legislative recourse, Wilson chipped away at Prohibition using the executive power that Congress could not check: his pardon. By the end of his second term, alcohol offenders accounted for more than one-fifth of Wilson’s clemency recipients.

Unlike Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt had been ambivalent about Prohibition. During his time in the New York State Senate, the powerful Anti-Saloon League had praised Roosevelt’s “perfect voting record.” Even after the repeal of Prohibition became central to his presidential platform, according to one biographer, “the story persisted that whatever Roosevelt might say, there was a voting record to prove he was ‘dry’ at heart.” But when Prohibition was repealed by popular demand in 1933, FDR went on a pardoning spree that outclassed his predecessors, approving alcohol offenders who had been previously rejected or otherwise hadn’t even applied.

Wilson used his pardon to protest an impossible law. Roosevelt used his to acknowledge the change in social norms....

Read entire article at Atlantic


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