Jimmy Carter’s post-presidency has been admirable. His presidency, on the other hand, was pretty much an unmitigated disaster, until literally his last days in office:
No one from the government notified Barbara Winter about the pardon. Not the White House, not the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, not the prosecutor who handled her case.
She found out from her mother, who read in the newspaper that one of the country’s most famous folk singers, who had admitted to and been convicted of molesting her when she was barely 14, had been pardoned by President Jimmy Carter on his final full day in office in 1981.
It felt, Winter says now, “like you got sucker-punched in the gut. It’s telling him, ‘It’s okay what you did, just don’t get caught next time,’ if that makes sense.”
Presidential pardons often kick up controversy, from Gerald Ford’s pardon of his disgraced predecessor Richard M. Nixon, to Bill Clinton’s clemency for fugitive financier Marc Rich, who had been on the FBI’s Most Wanted List alongside Osama bin Laden. Donald Trump, who repeatedly extended mercy to friends and political allies, pardoned or commuted the sentences of 144 people in his final hours as president, including former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon.
But this pardon by Carter — perhaps the only one in U.S. history wiping away a conviction for a sexual offense against a child — escaped scrutiny when it happened. It was granted just hours before the American hostages in Iran were freed, which captured headlines for weeks.
The Washington Post didn’t write about the pardon until Feb. 7, 1981. Even then, it was buried in the back of the Metro section, and only seemed notable because of who the recipient was: renowned folk singer Peter Yarrow of the group Peter, Paul and Mary, who co-wrote the beloved children’s song, “Puff the Magic Dragon.”
At his sentencing in September 1970, Yarrow’s attorney argued “the sisters were ‘groupies’ whom he defined as young women and girls who deliberately provoke sexual relationships with music stars,” according to a United Press Internationalreport. He told the judge Yarrow had been seeing a psychiatrist since 1964 and that his condition had improved since marrying, and that after this, Yarrow’s career was clearly finished.
Admittedly, the idea that popular musicians should get a pass for having sex with children was bizarrely widespread in the 70s, but I would still have a strong expectation that the President of the United States should rise above this.