Slate’s Timothy Noah bravely holds out against the conventional wisdom in praise of Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon. The trouble is, Noah doesn’t so much have an argument as he has a snit. He thinks Nixon wouldn’t have been prosecuted anyway (but by his own account that’s not really certain). He raises the generally debunked “quid pro quo” rumors. He questions whether Ford’s feelings of friendship toward Nixon might have influenced him (relying on Bob Woodward’s latest breathless reporting), as though the pardoner’s motives were determinative of the propriety of the pardon. And he thinks there was something wrong with pardoning someone who “had not yet been indicted, let alone convicted, of any crime”—as though there was something novel about that in 1974.
Throughout, Noah seems guided by the tacit premise that what mattered was whether Nixon deserved a pardon. But as I told Bill Bennett’s radio audience yesterday morning, this is not always the most important consideration in the granting of pardons, which may have salutary political purposes in a time of crisis that have nothing to do with meting out justice to a deserving individual. Lots of pardons were given out in the aftermath of the Civil War to “rebels” who probably didn’t deserve them—but civil peace was more important.
What really seems to have Noah exercised is that Ford’s pardon of Nixon, in his view, set a precedent for the first President Bush’s pardon of Caspar Weinberger on the eve of his trial on perjury charges brought by Iran-contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh. If it is true that the Nixon precedent gave Bush the idea, so much the better. In truth, Weinberger, unlike Nixon, deserved to be released from the clutches of a political prosecutor—so Noah’s connection of the two pardons is pretty doubtful.
But let’s concede Noah his fevered imaginings about Weinberger and Bush, abetted by ex post facto rantings of Walsh himself. What he still doesn’t have is anything like an argument against Ford’s pardon of Nixon. Like a malevolent Cheshire cat, all he has is a sneer.