Ralph Waldo Emerson liked philosophical flexibility. So he, famously, equated “a foolish consistency” with “the hobgoblin of little minds”.

This week, President Bush proved his kinship with Emerson by commuting the 30-month sentence of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Jr., for perjury and justice obstruction.. How so, you say? By using his own special clemency-granting process., one that swept away every precedent and principle other than Mr. Bush’s druthers.

He — for example — disregarded his Attorney General’s position on sentencing white collar perjurers and justice-obstructers (long prison terms regardless of public service and other mitigating circumstances); ignored the protocol he used to assess every other clemency plea (filtering, applicant interviews, and recommendations by a “pardon” section of the Justice Department); explicitly reserved a possible expansion of the amnesty (into a full pardon)j and broke a promise (to let the legal process run its course before considering intervention) . The president even refused to watch coverage of Mr. Libby’s trial, preferring, we surmise, to assess the defendant’s blameworthiness on a cold record.

Don’t get Blawgletter wrong. We would fain contest the decider’s constitutional power to bestow mercy on whomsoever, howsoever, and whensoever he wishes. But we do propose that the Libby commutation captures Mr. Bush’s reflexively ad hoc, supra-legal, extra-constitutional approach to issues.

Think of, among other things, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, signing statements, extraordinary renditions, domestic wiretaps, rejection of congressional oversight, waterboarding, firing of U.S. Attorneys, secret prisons, denial of habeas corpus rights, military commissions, lax enforcement of laws protecting investors and consumers, nomination of ideological judges, hostility towards class actions, and retention of an incompetent or dishonest Attorney General.

The rule of law — in contrast to the rule of men — depends on faithful application of rules, procedures, and precedents. It does not bend to obey any single person’s will. And a chief executive who habitually tries to mold the law to his own preferences resembles, we think, a hobgoblin far more destructive and scary than the one Emerson had in mind.

Barry Barnett