Ed. Note: Like the old Fault Lines days, Chris Seaton and Mario Machado will duke it out over whether the pardon of former Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio was the worst pardon ever. This is Mario’s argument.
A brief throat-clearing before deploying the first strike: Joe Arpaio is a contemptuous sadist and President Trump is the poor man’s Silvio Berlusconi, with the added bonus of Trump having access to the Gold Codes. They’re both sheep-faced loons who shouldn’t be in a position that involves law or governance.
That I take such a position should be obvious since I am a criminal defense lawyer sentient primate, but these days it’s wiser to Gertrude before a discussion rather than after. It’s a sign of the times.
So, the question before the house is not whether Arpaio is the kind of person that should make those with a modicum of humanity wish there was a special hell for him to go to, but whether he’s the “worst” person to have ever received a presidential pardon. That, my friends, he is not.
To arrive at this conclusion, I take into account each person’s entire relevant conduct that’s been documented, and not just the offense of conviction. Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt, but his conduct over several decades as Manicopa County Sheriff included all kinds of depraved deeds that resulted in the death and suffering of many innocents. Imagine if all that was considered when judging discussing Al Capone was his tax evasion conviction. The tax code doesn’t make for intriguing stuff when it comes to making celluloids about mafiosi.
President Richard Nixon trumps Arpaio when it comes to being less deserving of the ultimate constitutional reprieve. On September 8, 1974, President Gerald Ford granted a presidential pardon to Nixon:
For all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from January 20, 1969 through August 9, 1974.
Ford gave Nixon a clean bill of health for all the nefarious acts he committed during his second term. But it’s Nixon’s actions during the 1968 presidential election that resulted in death and suffering of epic proportions that extended for decades afterward, when it may all have been avoided.
As part of his election strategy, Nixon paired up with serial war criminal Henry Kissinger in an effort to sabotage the Paris peace negotiations on Vietnam. As it appears in his future chief-of-staff’s notes, Nixon told H.R. Halderman to “monkey wrench” President Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to begin peace negotiations. It’s not a stretch to allege that what Nixon did amounts to treason, but it’s the innocent loss of life that resulted from it that makes Nixon top Arpaio.
Why did he undertake such a Machiavellian scheme? Because he believed that if a peace deal would be finalized before the election, it would hurt his chances of winning. Thus, Nixon and his goons went on to privately assure the South Vietnamese military rulers that a Republican Administration (Nixon’s) would get a better deal for them than would a Democratic one (incumbent Vice-President Humphrey’s). Nixon succeeded, and the Vietnamese junta withdrew from the peace talks on the eve of the election, ruining the chances for peace.
The butcher’s bill that resulted from Nixon’s actions is staggering. In the time between his election and when Nixon tried to end the war on the same terms (4 years later), approximately 20,000 Americans lost their lives, while thousands upon thousands of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians died horrible deaths.
More than a million victims –both Vietnamese and American — suffered the after effects of Agent Orange for decades, with the U.S. finally agreeing in 2015 to compensate 2,100 Air Force reservists. This is in addition to the damage done to American democracy and foreign governments that were not part of the fight.
When he pardoned Nixon, Ford had this to say:
“Theirs is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part,” the 38th president said of the Nixons. “It could go on, and on, and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that. And if I can, I must.”
Ford wanted the nation to move on, to end the national acrimony. But that’s tangential to the issue of whether Nixon is the “worst” person to be pardoned. When two career criminals – if that label ever fits, it’s with these two animals – get a clean slate from the chief executive, some may say that “it sends the wrong message.” But that’s beside the point.
To the sociopathic criminal, the concept of general or specific deterrence is alien. What Nixon did after subverting democracy in the 1968 elections, and what Arpaio did to his inmates year after year after being chided by the least dangerous branch, means that people like them will not be deterred by potential criminal consequences.
All we’re left with for today is to put each of them on a scale, go through their record of lawlessness, and see who ran up the bigger tab of human suffering, death, and destruction before getting a clean slate. In that category, Nixon wins in spades.