If Bush pardons himself, it would be a stunning challenge to America's self-image as the upholder of law and freedom

Is George Bush preparing to give himself a presidential pardon? On first hearing, the idea sounds utterly incredible and outrageous. How can the head of a state in which respect for the law remains an active part of the national DNA even contemplate such an arbitrary and shameless act of apparent lawlessness? Amnesties and pardons of this kind are the stock-in-trade of tinpot dictators, not constitutional leaders. And yet ...

A Bush pardon would be a sensational final act to the most divisive presidency in modern America. But he certainly has the power to grant it. Article 2 section 2 of the US constitution gives the president the power to grant reprieves and pardons. The US courts have traditionally interpreted this power widely, to include amnesties, conditional pardons and blanket pardons. And all presidents have used the power – Harry Truman's 1,913 pardons is the postwar record.

And these final weeks of a presidency have become, by convention, the pardoning season. Compared with Truman, Bill Clinton was a light pardoner. He awarded just 396 of them in his eight years as president. But as many as 218 of Clinton's pardons were issued during his final month in office in 2001 – beneficiaries included his brother Roger Clinton and his longtime Arkansas politicial ally Susan MacDougall. This settling of accounts could be the pattern which Bush is about to follow.