Punishment and forgiveness

It occurred to me midway through Mike Huckabee’s remarks on his infamous commutation of the sentence of the eventual cop-killer. I was wrong to have written that he had declined to take responsibility.

He was telling a packed room at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock that 108 years in consecutive sentences for the crimes Maurice Clemmons committed as a teen were excessive.

He said a privileged white youngster with a good lawyer would have done much less time, if any, for the same spree. He said he’d do the same thing again if confronted with identical facts and circumstances.

You can’t take much more responsibility than that. And he’s absolutely right about class and race.

More precisely, he wants to shift blame. Authorities in both Arkansas and Washington had opportunities subsequent to the parole to keep the man detained, but let him go.

But Huckabee seems to be getting weary even of that. Wrangling on political blame seems insensitive to the horror of the shooting deaths of four policemen.

Indeed, he simply cut us off in a news conference. No more questions on this commutation, he said.

So what I did was wait around for the book-signing line to clear out, then confront Huckabee with a copy of his new book of Christmas stories to seek his signature and permission to follow up. He greeted me with a feisty, combative friendliness and signed the book this way: “At least we both love dogs.”

I challenged him on what he’d said publicly — that his religion-based affinity for personal redemption was not the motivation in his hyperactive record as the Arkansas governor of shortening prison sentences.

He said oh, OK, it is true that his faith affects everything he does. But he objected to this idea that, because he’s a preacher, he was a sucker for professed prison conversions. He said only God can forgive and redeem, but that a governor at least can affect justice.

He quoted Alexander Hamilton, who argued that we needed the power of presidential pardons because sometimes the criminal justice system makes mistakes and it is efficient for one man to have the sober responsibility to correct them.

Actually, though, Hamilton seemed to be suggesting that a president so empowered would use the unilateral authority sparingly. Huckabee used his gubernatorial power more frequently than several other contemporary governors combined.

Huckabee argues that his commuting a sentence was no different from a prosecuting attorney making a plea bargain. But he prosecuting attorney is elected to make such judgments on a full-time basis. He is ostensibly a professional trained in these matters. He confronts crimes at street-level and deals with caseload pressure.

A governor’s pardon power is to be a backstop for the most unusual circumstances. But Huckabee seems to have disposed that power with a kind of glee — or vigor, at least — to make himself into a super-judge.

Anyway, to quote Hamilton as saying we would not want a criminal justice system that couldn’t be corrected is a luxury that probably shouldn’t be extended to a governor who carried out the death penalty.

You can’t correct the killing of the wrong man. Nor can you correct the killing of one who got the death penalty when another man got life in prison for essentially the same act.

I asked Huckabee if he now was more sensitive to what the Republicans cynically did to Michael Dukakis in 1988 over Willie Horton.

He didn’t answer. Instead he ridiculed liberals who supposedly are all about compassion, but who want to use this tragedy against him merely for payback. Yes, I said, modern politics is all about partisan payback anymore.

“You think I don’t know that?” Huckabee asked. He said he’d been the victim.

I said he’d been a perpetrator, too.

“Me?” he replied, a little sheepishly, perhaps.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of “High Wire,” a book about Bill Clinton’s first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.

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