Please pardon the skepticism
In a not-so-instant replay review of her lying in federal
steroid and check-fraud investigations, Marion Jones is going straight to the
Decider, petitioning George W. Bush for a presidential pardon.
What Jones would gain from a pardon - which experts see as highly unlikely,
given the historic number of applications being reported and Bush's track
record of limited clemency - hardly is clear. She already has served more than
four months of her six-month jail sentence. Her five Olympic medals, not to
mention her reputation as an athletic heroine, are gone forever.
But the case does invite discussion of athletic role-modeling, celebrity
access to power, special treatment, rule of law and a quick civics lesson on
the pardon power, which is available to anyone at the complete discretion of
the chief executive.
That Jones is famous is "a double-edged sword," said P.S. Ruckman, a
political science professor at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill., who has
reviewed all of history's presidential pardons. "It doesn't get a pardon but it
does get you access."
Ruckman, who created the Pardon Power blog and keeps his own "presidential
pardon watch list," cited boxer John L. Sullivan's coziness with Theodore
Roosevelt as "probably the first case of this intersection of pardons and
sports and celebrity."
Roosevelt was a boxing fan, Ruckman said, and Sullivan "walked right into
the White House, because he could. Out came reports that he was visiting to get
a pardon for his nephew, who had been absent without leave from the Marine
"He got it, too, in 1907. His nephew's name was John Lennon. Too good."
In Lennon's case, the connection to sports celebrity was indirect and the
benefit of a pardon was more obvious than with Jones, who "won't lose her
celebrity status" even without a pardon, Ruckman predicted. "And she'll
probably be teaching track or something" when she leaves prison.
A pardon wouldn't restore Jones' medals or track records any more than
Bush's commutation of Scooter Libby's perjury and obstruction-of-justice
conviction could overturn Libby's disbarment. "One of the limitations of the
pardon power," Ruckman said, "is that it will not trump the qualifications or
standards of a profession."
Clemency lawyer Margaret Colgate Love, a former U.S. pardon attorney,
described the pardon as "just a forgiveness. It does wipe away the legal
liabilities. It doesn't expunge the record. What it does is relieve the stigma
She said the pardon can reflect that "we are a forgiving people" and is an
important part of a legal system that "is tough, particularly on people with
But to a public suspicious of the pardon as a political tool to bail out
presidential pals or people with access to power, there is no surprise in the
vigorous calls to "keep Marion Jones in prison" - among them an angry open
letter to Bush by USA Track and Field's new CEO, Doug Logan.
Immediately after a New York Times report last weekend included Jones' name
among high-visibility felons asking for White House forgiveness - including
junk-bond principal Michael Milken and American-born Taliban terrorist John
Walker Lindh - Logan wrote that to excuse "one of the biggest frauds
perpetuated on the Olympic movement would be nothing less than thumbing our
collective noses at the world."
Forgiving Jones "would send a horrible message to young people who idolized
her, reinforcing the notion that you can cheat and be entitled to get away
with it," Logan argued.
Such rough justice could be part of Logan's advertising campaign for his
sport's commitment to fight doping. Regardless, the idea that a president
somehow would benefit by showing a fallen athletic star mercy - particularly at
a time when a generous number of sports personalities find themselves at odds
with the law - strikes Ruckman as suspect.
"I think the culture, at least since the '60s," he said, "is pretty
get-tough on crime, and presidents will get more criticism than praise for
granting a pardon. If you wrote an essay on famous popular pardons, it would be
a short essay."
Love, in a 2006 article for Litigation Magazine, wrote that the pardon is
"capricious, unaccountable, inaccessible to ordinary people, easily corrupted
and regarded with deep suspicion by politicians and the public alike."
The only two incumbent chief executives "who approach their pardoning
responsibilities with any amount of proper respect," she wrote, "are Governor
Alas, both are now out of office.