Hearken to the delighted squawks of the Republicans about the Rich pardon and about the vindication of their charge that Clinton is morally beyond the pale, the worst of the worst. Who do they think they're kidding? Corruption of the presidential power to pardon? Let's just take another look at those pardons issued by George Bush Sr. at the onset and conclusion of his presidential term.

In 1989, President Bush used his power to pardon a longtime Soviet spy who had been prudent enough to offer $1.3 million to Ronald Reagan's presidential library, plus a $110,000 disbursement to the Republican National Committee (RNC), this latter bribe being made in the week of Bush's inauguration. The pardon duly came a few months later, on Aug. 14, 1989.

The spy was Armand Hammer, whose successful maneuvers for his pardon are hilariously described in Edward Jay Epstein's brilliant 1996 book on Hammer, "Dossier." Epstein describes how Hammer had bizarrely hoped he would be in line for a Nobel Peace prize for his efforts to foster U.S.-Soviet understanding. To this end he lobbied both Prince Charles and the then Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, who duly nominated him for the Peace prize. But Hammer discovered that no one with a criminal conviction had ever won the Nobel award. On his record there was the embarrassment (a trifling one, given his amazing career as a spy and oil bandit, eliciting no less than six federal investigations dating back to 1938) of A federal misdemeanor conviction in 1976 for his illegal campaign contributions to Nixon's campaign in 1972. So he needed a pardon.

Hammer made his $1.3 million pledge to the Reagan library and began to agitate for a pardon. The FBI alerted the Reagan White House to ongoing investigations of Hammer for attempting to bribe members of the Los Angeles City Council to the tune of $120,00 to give a green light to Hammer's company, Occidental, to drill off the California coast. Nonetheless, it seemed that the pardon would come through in Reagan's parting hours. Then a hitch arose. Hammer had asked Reagan for a pardon based on innocence. As he had pleaded guilty to the misdemeanors, even the compliant Reagan White House couldn't oblige.

Hammer shifted gears and greeted the incoming President Bush with the request for a pardon based on compassion, which Bush gave him. Ever the businessman, Hammer felt that since Reagan hadn't come through, he had no obligation to pony up the $1.3 million he'd promised to the library. He did make the $110,000 br... , uh, contribution, to the RNC. So he got his pardon, though, alas, not his Peace prize, which, in 1989, went to the Dalai Lama.

Now let's go to the other end of Bush time. As he left town, Bush pardoned, among others, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, former assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, former National Security Council Director Robert McFarlane and three former CIA men, Duane "Dewey" Clarridge, Alan Fiers and Clair George. Abrams, McFarlane, Fiers and George had all been convicted of withholding information from Congress in connection with the investigation of the Iran-contra scandal. Clarridge was facing trial. Weinberger had been indicted by special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh on the eve of the 1992 election.

At the time of the pardons, Walsh said bitterly, "It demonstrates that powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office -- deliberately abusing the public trust -- without consequence." But there was more to this pardon than just getting some former criminal associates off the hook. Walsh said that new evidence had come to light in the form of notes taken by Weinberger, suggesting that as vice president, Bush had been in the loop on the Iran-contra deals. Said Walsh, "In light of President Bush's own misconduct, we are gravely concerned by his decision to pardon others who lied to Congress and obstructed official investigations."

In other words, Walsh was suggesting that outgoing president Bush had pardoned Weinberger to ensure the silence of a man who could testify about his own criminal complicity in the Iran-contra scandal.

These days, Republicans are shouting that it's unprecedented to pardon a man who has not faced trial, as was the case with Marc Rich. Walsh made the same point in 1993. Ford pardoned Nixon before the latter was indicted; and Bush pardoned Weinberger and Claridge, post indictment but before trial.

One final point: Clinton is savagely denounced for using military adventures to distract attention from his own predicaments. Look at the timing of Bush's sudden decision to commit U.S. forces to Somalia. The concern with Somalia was always somewhat bizarre, but it sure did take those Bush pardons out of the headlines.

And now? Well, all this fuss about Clinton's pardon of Rich sure distracts attention from the mountain of evidence that George W. Bush is the beneficiary of a fixed election. What offense is greater: pardoning Marc Rich or stealing the White House?

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.