Forty-one years ago today, on September 8, 1974, President Gerald R. Ford issued Proclamation 4311, which by its terms granted “a full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from January 20, 1969 through August 9, 1974.” Ford had been President for one day short of a month, having taken over after Nixon’s resignation as he faced certain impeachment. The pardon essentially ended the Watergate affair, at least so far as it concerned Nixon. It was a bombshell, one that exploded over the country and rankled great partisan feelings. Historians have judged it to be the central event in Ford’s truncated Presidency, and possibly the reason why he couldn’t win election in his own right in 1976. It was also, if you asked Ford, a fairly easy decision, and one that he remained proud of until the end of his life in 2006. The pardon is destined to be mentioned on the last page of almost every book about Watergate written until the end of the Republic.
It’s a decision worth examining, both historically and morally. Much of the country was outraged when Ford announced the pardon. The New York Times called it unwise and unjust. Teddy Kennedy, the de facto Democratic leader in the Senate, was also extremely critical. Public opinion polls shifted against Ford at the shaky outset of his crisis-riddled Presidency. At the time, although Nixon had resigned he was still deep in Watergate-related legal matters, as were numerous others who had taken part in the scandal to break into the Democratic Headquarters in 1972 and then cover it up. It was quite possible and in fact even likely that Nixon would be charged with a federal crime–most likely obstruction of justice, Nixon’s commission of which was captured on tape–and have to undergo a trial. That trial would likely have been the most costly and acrimonious legal proceeding in American history. Assuming appeals, which might have dragged on for years, the question of whether “Tricky Dick” would go to jail might still be an open one as late as 1980, two Presidential elections after his resignation. If that happened, the Watergate affair would have consumed the oxygen of the nation’s political life for nearly the entire decade of the 1970s.
Here is Ford’s televised speech to the nation in which he announced the pardon of Nixon.
But was it moral to pardon Nixon prospectively, even before he was formally charged with a crime? Was Ford’s action a form of political cronyism, in which Ford, who’d spent most of his career in the U.S. House of Representative, scratched the itchy back of his Republican patron who’d elevated him to higher office? Ford famously declared in his inaugural address that “we are a nation of laws, not of men.” On September 8, 1974 it certainly didn’t look like that to many people. As a wealthy man with the most powerful and politically well-connected friends in America, Nixon would undoubtedly have the finest legal counsel and would enter the criminal justice system with far more advantages than most defendants had. If he was found guilty under these circumstances, it would send a powerful message that no one in America is above the law. Would that not be a necessary vindication of the American constitutional system, especially after all the damage Nixon had done to it?
Ford thought, from his position in the White House, that it was time to stop the bleeding. Together, Vietnam and Watergate had destroyed Americans’ faith in their government and in politics in general. The problems of the 1970s were very serious: energy shortages, an economic slowdown, high tensions with the Soviet Union, wars and strife in the Middle East, and continuing fallout in Southeast Asia despite the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973. Ford was an unelected President, having been chosen not on a national ticket but by the Senate, as a replacement for former Vice-President Spiro Agnew, who also resigned under a cloud of scandal unconnected to Watergate. Ford wanted the country to move on. A pardon of Nixon was not necessarily an end run around the justice system, either. The Constitution expressly gives the President of the United States the power to pardon people within the ambit of federal law. By all rights he used this power properly. Despite widespread suspicion that Ford had set up some sneaky deal with Nixon to pardon him after Nixon left office, he (Ford) steadfastly denied such a bargain was ever proposed. It was, pure and simple, an act of mercy–as much absolving the nation as absolving Nixon.
After the pardon, Ford went on to run for election as President in his own right in 1976. He was narrowly defeated by Jimmy Carter.
One of the criticisms of the pardon was that it was unconditional. Some suggested that a pardon might have been proper if it was conditioned on Nixon admitting wrongdoing while in office, something he had continually refused to do. Ford, however, approached the matter in a different way. Nixon could legally have rejected the pardon. Under a 1915 Supreme Court decision, a defendant accepting a pardon is an implicit admission of his or her guilt. Thus, by accepting Ford’s clemency, Nixon essentially admitted that he needed it–that he broke the law. This was good enough for Gerald Ford.
As it turned out, it seems to have been good for the country too. Since 1974 public opinion has swung strongly in favor of the pardon. In 2001 the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, of which Teddy Kennedy was a member, awarded Ford a Profiles in Courage award, named after the famous book written by Teddy’s brother showcasing laudable acts of political courage. The award was given specifically for the pardon. Ford’s short Presidency is sadly not remembered for much else, but if this one decision was his enduring contribution to history, it seems to have been an uncommonly wise one.