Friday, May 18, 2012

Why O. Henry? Would pushing Jack Johnson pardon have more 'symbolic heft'?

The first bit of publicity for the Pardon O. Henry! campaign at is starting to roll in. Jordan Smith at the Austin Chronicle has a short item, and MSNBC's Kari Huus has a longer piece, comparing this campaign to efforts to pardon another great Texan, Jack Johnson, whose posthumous clemency application was rejected by President Obama in 2009:
In that effort, spearheaded by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the subject was black heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson, who was imprisoned nearly a century ago for violation of the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for "immoral purposes." The case was seen as punishment for Johnson's unapologetic relationships with white women, and a warning to other black men.
Ms. Huus (who btw has done good reporting on clemency issues), thinks that Jack Johnson's cause would be "arguably one with more symbolic heft." Grits, though, must respectfully disagree.

For starters, President Obama has already turned down Johnson's pardon, and as much as I supported that effort, which was notably led by GOP Congressional leaders, Grits doesn't expect the President to flip flop. But there's another reason I think championing O. Henry's pardon carries just as much if not more "symbolic heft" when it comes to critiquing the president's parsimonious pardon policies, and I articulated that view this morning over at the Pardon O. Henry! blog:
Why O. Henry?

The short answer is that this campaign didn't choose William Porter, President Barack Obama did (or more likely one of his speech writers). When the President quoted the great writer in the midst of the ceremonial pardoning of a turkey last Thanksgiving, it brought the absurdity of 21st-century clemency into crystal-clear perspective: The bird may be pardoned but the man may not be forgiven, even if he was innocent, indeed even as his prose is purloined.

Just as the pardoned bird was symbolic, so is centering a campaign for expanded use of presidential pardon power around a writer honored by the President, but from a clemency perspective only in the breach.
That's why, to me, a campaign for Porter's posthumous pardon has plenty of "symbolic heft," though I suppose it depends on precisely what one is trying to symbolize. Sign the petition. Tell Barack Obama to "Pardon O. Henry!" and reinvigorate presidential clemency powers.


Jason Withers said...

Sure, Jack Johnson would have more heft, but let's be real here.

The Jack Johnson thing was a canny, canny political ploy more than anything else. Either choice presented problems for President Obama.

If he turns it down flat, he gets judged some. If he pardons Johnson, a whole lot of ugly racial politics are suddenly in play, as he's "favoring black criminals" yada yada yada. And given Johnson's "crime" as it were, more than a few men would be looking at the President and hearing Cleavon Little's line from "Blazing Saddles" - "Where are the white women at?"

I found myself really disappointed in McCain for setting that trap.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Yes indeed, Jason, it all depends on precisely WHAT one is trying to symbolize. You've captured the essence of why IMO O. Henry's pardon has heft for critiquing the decline of clemency, while the Jack Johnson pardon effort was being supported by McCain/King, et. al. largely in order to symbolize other things.

Michael said...

I saw the name "Jack Johnson" and for some reason my mind registered the name "Joe Jackson". Now THERE'S someone who is long past due for some clemency and a pardon. I wish President Obama had the power to induct Shoeless Joe into the Baseball Hall of Fame, especially in light of all the sportswriters who can say with a straight face that Pete Rose belongs there.

ckikerintulia said...

I signed