EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece by William F. Buckley Jr. appeared in the May 22, 2001, issue of National Review. (You can dig into NR’s archives anytime here.)
The event at the Kennedy Library in Boston was pretty heady historical stuff. There at the Windsor Castle of Camelot were the two most illustrious survivors, brother Edward Kennedy and daughter Caroline Kennedy. And what were they doing? Presenting a medal. What kind of a medal? A Profile in Courage Award. What’s that all about? The medal derives from the title of the bestseller by Pres. John F. Kennedy. The book described acts of heroic political courage by dead politicians, among them the senator who voted not to convict impeached Pres. Andrew Johnson, thereby saving him from political doom, and the republic from happier presidential prospects. Another was Robert Taft, who was honored for his courage in standing by certain reservations about the Nuremberg war-crimes procedures. The honoree on this occasion was, no less, Gerald Ford. And for what act of courage? For pardoning Richard Nixon.
The appearance by Senator Kennedy at the presentation was remarkable, not only because he did what he did, but because of the Shrum-free rhetoric he used. Bob Shrum is the other James Carville in the fever swamps of Democratic rhetoric, an endless deposit of spite, hyperbole, and odium, an ever-normal granary for Democrats who want to feast on the subject of Republican racism, fascism, hatred of the poor, and defense of the rich and powerful.
Senator Kennedy doesn’t usually pass the doorman at night without a Shrumload in his quiver, but from all reports, at the Kennedy Library with President Ford at his side, Ted Kennedy was gracious, and even repentant. He moved from the icy criticism of a pardon for Nixon in 1974, to acclaiming it as an act of courage and statesmanship in 2001. Senator Kennedy said that Mr. Ford, by that pardon, had proved that “politics can be a noble profession.” He then spoke truly noble words himself, because it cannot have been easy for him to say what he did. “I was one of those who spoke out against his action then. But time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we see that President Ford was right. His courage and dedication to our country made it possible for us to begin the process of healing and put the tragedy of Watergate behind us.”
The episode was especially moving inasmuch as forgiveness is not in the Kennedy tradition. JFK was the author of the famous dictum, “Don’t get mad, get even.” Senator Kennedy has time and again been moved to fidelity to that maxim. True, he has very little to fear politically from Gerald Ford, who is not going to run again for president. Nor was his reasoning entirely free from considerations extrinsic to the medal being conferred. We would learn from an interview by the New York Times’s Adam Clymer what the rational narrative was that brought Teddy to honor Ford for forgiving Nixon.
Kennedy had read a student essay on the subject, and it caused him to think differently about the pardon because of the “whole impeachment furor” over President Clinton, which absorbed government institutions and “drove from political debate all national and international concerns.”
There is a problem, however. If you follow the reasoning here, Mr. Kennedy seems to be saying that impeachments of presidents should not proceed because of their distracting effect on political institutions and political debate. But manifestly there is a problem left over. The Constitution provides a penalty for high crimes and misdemeanors and it oughtn’t to be thought obviously right to invalidate that provision in the Constitution simply on the grounds that an impeachment uses up a lot of time and attention. The best way to avoid impeachment, obviously, is to avoid committing impeachable offenses. Mr. Kennedy was not clamorous, in 1998, in calling to Mr. Clinton’s attention the consequences of his behavior, the lost opportunity for debate, the distractions from the primary concerns of the republic.
Now all of this could have been avoided if Mr. Clinton, acknowledging his offenses, had resigned his office — in the tradition of British and French and Italians who tend to requite public offenses by simply standing down. What other progression in events was possible? Well, if Clinton had followed the Nixon sequence, a) Clinton would have resigned, and b) President Gore would have pardoned him. There might have been a large fuss by Republicans in protest against such a pardon, but then after that died down, the Kennedy Library could have given Mr. Gore its Profile in Courage Award, and all the ends of justice and charity would have been met.
But it was a nice intermediate moment for Senator Kennedy.