Opinion shorts: Thoughts on Hurricane Harvey and the Arpaio pardon

Be glad you live in the mountains. Watching the incredible devastation in the Houston area brings to mind a couple of things.

First, this is truly a devastating national tragedy and the whole country is watching in awe and trepidation. I’m hopeful the nation can come together, put some of our discord and political antagonism aside and unite in supporting the thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people affected.  

I recognize that’s probably too much to expect. The blame and fault-finding will start soon enough. Some people, unfortunately, seek political advantage even in tragedy.

While tallies of the number of injured and killed are by no means complete, we can be thankful that those numbers aren’t higher. It is a testament to the great work of first responders, neighbors helping neighbors, and all the other volunteers who are helping. The cooperation and collaboration among the various levels of government seem to be remarkable.

There will inevitably be some criticism of leaders for not being better prepared. But it is really impossible to fully prepare for a catastrophe as large as this. Government can plan for a wide variety of disasters. But no government can be prepared for a 500-year storm like the one that is hitting the Houston area. It would be prohibitively expensive to prevent all damage and inconvenience from freaks of nature like this. Mother Nature is always in charge. Preparedness really requires individual and families to be prepared, not just governments.

Second, seeing an immense catastrophe like this makes me grateful to live in the Mountain West. Certainly, we have our disasters – floods, blizzards, fires, avalanches, and so forth. But certainly in my lifetime we’ve never seen the horrendous destruction from tornadoes, hurricanes and horrendous coastal and big-river flooding. We have some protection being far inland and surrounded by mountains.

Having said that, a high Richter-scale earthquake could devastate some of our metropolitan areas. Even then, however, while the destruction might be severe, it would be over quickly and damage could be rapidly assessed and dealt with. In Houston, the destruction is continuing for days, severely complicating response and rebuilding efforts.

Arpaio not the only controversial pardon. On a completely different topic, Pres. Trump is taking heavy fire for pardoning former Sheriff Joe  Arpaio from Maricopa County, Ariz. I’m not going to defend the pardon, because I didn’t agree with it, either.

However, I think it’s important to point out that previous presidents also made very controversial pardons. It’s not fair to single out Trump as though this is something unprecedented.  

Arpaio was convicted of a defying a federal court order that he disagreed with. That’s a serious offense. He might have gotten six months in jail. But former Pres. Bill Clinton, on his last day in office, pardoned Marc Rich, a wealthy international fugitive who was wanted on a long list of very serious felony charges going back decades. He was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List.  Rich’s ex-wife, Denise, had donated $450,000 to the Clinton Library and over a million bucks to Democratic campaigns in the Clinton era. Clinton granted pardons and clemency to 456 people, 140 of them in the final hours of his presidency.

Pres. Barack Obama, meanwhile, was among the greatest pardoners of all time. He pardoned 1,927 individuals convicted of federal crimes, including 330 on his last full day in office, mostly drug offenders. He commuted the 35-year prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, the Army private convicted of stealing secret diplomatic and military documents. He commuted the sentence of Oscar Lopez Rivera, a former member of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, a terrorist organization that killed people in bomb attacks.

Trump’s pardon of Arpaio may have been political. But that wouldn’t be different than a lot of other pardons by other presidents.