Anatomy Of A Pardon: Why Weinberger Walked

George Bush says "honor, decency and fairness" prompted the Christmas Eve pardon he granted to former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger, who was under indictment for lying to Congress in its investigation of the Iran-contra scandal. But Weinberger's road to presidential forgiveness was carefully paved. He walked-along with five other indicted or convicted lran-contra figures-with the help of an adroit lobbying campaign that could serve as a graduate-school case study on how to marshal support for a controversial cause. The pardon lobby assembled the critical elements for a Washing-ton deal: the right friends, the right enemies, judicious phone calling and a bit of luck. It used those assets to neutralize potential Democratic critics and win allies in the White House. Their message was that Weinberger was no felon, but the victim of an overzealous prosecutor.

The campaign began before Weinberger was charged with a crime. The major players were Washington attorney Robert Bennett and William Clark, former Reagan national-security adviser and interior secretary. A fellow Californian and longtime friend of Weinberger's, Clark was the campaign's political strategist. Bennett's legal team first tried to head off indictment last spring by contending that Weinberger, a behind-the-scenes opponent of the arms-for-hostages swap, was actually an American hero. At 75, in failing health and with an ailing wife, he made a poor prosecutorial target, Bennett argued. He was blunt with special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh about the political consequences of pressing his case. "If you go after our client we'll be at nuclear war with you," he warned.

Walsh would not be cowed. Weinberger was indicted last June. Still, the pardon lobby continued to work on him. Clark met with Walsh three times, twice in Washington and once in Oklahoma City, where Walsh lives. He argued that, unlike other Iran-contra defendants, Weinberger reaped no financial gain from his alleged misdeeds. "We gave Walsh a litany of reasons for dismissing these counts," says a source close to Weinberger. "We even prepared his lines for him." Walsh, angry over Weinberger's failure to turn over Reagan-era diary notes, was nevertheless tempted to drop the case. He realized he might be attacked if he followed through. "This might be better than being run out of town on a rail," he told one source. But Walsh decided to continue.

Republican allies weren't hard for the Weinberger team to find. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole bashed Walsh at every opportunity. But in an election year, neither the Democrats nor the White House was eager to be out in front. Clark tried to build momentum for a pardon by enlisting former Republican senators Howard Baker and Paul Laxalt. Baker, a former Reagan chief of staff and veteran of the Senate Watergate committee, is widely respected on the Hill.

As Election Day neared, the pardon lobby came into some luck. A General Accounting Office report took Walsh to task for his expensive office operation, which included a car, driver and first-class air tickets to Oklahoma City. It only heightened congressional unhappiness over his six-year, $35 million quest for a smoking gun. The turning point came four days before the election, when Walsh announced a new charge against Weinberger. It centered on his notes about a 1986 White House meeting that seemed to contradict Bush's contention that as vice president he was "out of the loop" on the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran. The charge, later thrown out of court, enraged Bush, who believed it killed his chances of overtaking Bill Clinton over the last weekend of the campaign.

It also mobilized the White House as a player. Vice President Dan Quayle, his chief of staff William Kristol and White House counsel C. Boyden Gray quietly propelled the effort. (National-security adviser Brent Scowcroft was opposed to a pardon; chief of staff James Baker, indifferent.) Bush was receptive but worried about the political pounding he might take. "He needed to be persuaded that it was legally respectable and that the fallout could be contained," says a senior White House official.

Weinberger's supporters quickly adopted a divide-and-conquer strategy for the Democrats. They worked to isolate congressional liberals on the issue by getting moderate Democrats to sign off. Clark, Gray and Howard Baker made most of the calls. Weinberger did no direct lobbying but suggested Democrats he thought might help. One was House Speaker Thomas Foley, who agreed not to publicly criticize a pardon. "Neutralizing Foley was the key," says a GOP lawyer on the Hill. "Without the leadership, it's just liberal carping." Other heavyweights signed on, including Rep. Les Aspin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and now secretary of defense-designate. Bennett and Clark also opened a new front: the press. They lobbied influential columnists and editorial writers to stir support for a pardon. A few newspapers already were clearly on their side. The Washington Times gave big play to Walsh's difficulties. The Wall Street Journal editorial page had been referring to him as Captain Ahab. Bennett met with the editorial board of The Washington Post to plead his case for a pardon, but the paper didn't call for one.

By mid-December, Bush was edging closer to a pardon but was still undecided. The final push came when he learned that Walsh assistant James Brosnahan was trying to track down gossip that Weinberger had a mistress in London. Prosecution sources say Brosnahan wanted to talk to her because he thought she had been working on a Weinberger biography. But on Dec. 18, the White House asked Bennett to submit a formal letter asking for a pardon. The only remaining issue was whether other Iran-contra defendants should be pardoned as well. Quayle, Kristol and Gray argued that it would be unfair to exclude those who thought they were doing their duty and didn't benefit financially. When Bush left for Camp David before Christmas, he carried two statements drafted by Gray-one pardoning Weinberger and another clearing an additional five officials.

Bush ended Weinberger's legal problems but may have created a few for himself. Last week he hired former Carter attorney general Griffin Bell to represent him in dealings with Walsh, who is studying vice presidential diary notes belatedly turned over by the White House. If Walsh decides he has a case, Bush might need a pardon lobby of his own.