This weekend marks the 45th anniversary of arguably the most amazing moment in the history of the presidency. President Gerald Ford issued former president Richard Nixon a full, unconditional pardon for any crimes he may have committed related to the Watergate burglary and coverup.
In his endearingly plainspoken way, Ford explained his reasoning to the American people on September 8, 1974:
Many months and perhaps more years will have to pass before Richard Nixon could obtain a fair trial by jury in any jurisdiction of the United States under governing decisions of the Supreme Court. . . .
During this long period of delay and potential litigation, ugly passions would again be aroused. And our people would again be polarized in their opinions. And the credibility of our free institutions of government would again be challenged at home and abroad.
My conscience tells me clearly and certainly that I cannot prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed. My conscience tells me that only I, as President, have the constitutional power to firmly shut and seal this book. My conscience tells me it is my duty, not merely to proclaim domestic tranquility but to use every means that I have to insure it. I do believe that the buck stops here, that I cannot rely upon public opinion polls to tell me what is right. I do believe that right makes might and that if I am wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference. I do believe, with all my heart and mind and spirit, that I, not as President but as a humble servant of God, will receive justice without mercy if I fail to show mercy.
A great speech in defense of a genuine act of statesmanship. Ford still does not get the credit he deserves as one of our truly admirable presidents.
The challenge facing Ford when he took office on August 9, 1974, was immense. The country was reeling from the Watergate scandal. The economy was in shambles. South Vietnam would soon be in total collapse. It seemed as though all of America’s post-war chickens were coming home to roost — as an overeager federal government failed to manage both the domestic and foreign side of public policy, while enveloping itself in a humiliating scandal.
And unlike any other president before or since, Ford had no democratic legitimacy.
Almost all presidents are elected. Some, like Ford, became president because they had been vice president when the president died or (in Nixon’s case) left office. But among this subset, only Ford was never on the ballot as a vice president. He had been appointed to the vice presidency under the terms of the 25th Amendment, at that point a relatively new change to the Constitution. Previously, when the vice president ascended to the presidency, the vice-presidential office was left empty. After the 25th Amendment, vice-presidential vacancies were to be filled almost like cabinet positions — nominated by the president and confirmed by both houses of Congress.
This was the path Ford took to the White House. Nixon’s ’68 and ‘72 running mate, Spiro Agnew, resigned in disgrace in 1973 after being accused of bribery, extortion, and tax evasion during his tenure as Maryland governor. (He later pleaded no contest to a single count of tax evasion). Ford, who had been Republican minority leader in the House of Representatives, was nominated by Nixon as Agnew’s replacement and confirmed by Congress. Less than a year later, he would be president.
So, institutionally speaking, the executive branch was at a very low ebb in August 1974. Faith in government was (for that point) at an all-time low, and here came a new president that literally nobody had voted for.
And then he took the extraordinary step of pardoning Nixon.
Most accidental presidents begin working immediately to secure reelection in their own right. Even if they have never seriously aspired to the job, once they’re in, they want to stay. From Ford’s perspective, the smart political play would have been to keep Nixon dangling — to highlight the contrast between the squeaky-clean Ford and the crooked ex-president. But Ford put the country first. He knew that the prospect of criminal proceedings against Nixon would damage the country immensely, and he chose to put an end to the whole affair.
It did immediate — and probably lasting — damage to his political standing. Critics derided it another corrupt bargain, of the sort supposedly made by Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams in 1824 (when Adams allegedly offered Clay the secretary-of-state job in exchange for swinging the vote in the House of Representatives to Adams). And Ford’s polling numbers plummeted — from 70 percent approval in the initial Gallup poll when he took office to just 37 percent at the start of 1975. His numbers somewhat rebounded later on, but he was usually mired in mid-40s approval.
It would be going a bit far to say that pardoning Nixon sank Ford’s chances in 1976. The economy was still in rough shape; historically speaking, it is very hard for a party to win a third consecutive presidential term; and the GOP was divided, as a rising Ronald Reagan had nearly snatched the nomination from Ford on the back of strong support in the South and West. But pardoning Nixon certainly did not help Ford. And given the vanishingly narrow margin between Jimmy Carter and Ford — Carter won 50 percent to Ford’s 48 percent — the pardon may have made the difference.
That’s what makes the act so extraordinary. Ford knew he’d pay a political price for it, but he did it anyway, because he knew that the country needed to move on.
This decision has been totally vindicated by history. There are all sorts of “close calls” that professional and amateur historians can debate throughout American history, but this is not one of them..
The problems that Ford inherited — stagflation and Vietnam above all — he didn’t fix. He couldn’t really. His legislative agenda was sunk when, after the 1974 midterm, he was stuck with a very large, very liberal Democratic congressional majority. And today we usually think of Ford as a footnote as we mark the progression of the Republican party from the moderation of Dwight Eisenhower and Nixon to the conservatism of Reagan.
That’s understandable, but only up to a point. We need to remember that, by virtue of circumstances, Ford came into office with little real power. But the power he did possess, he wielded to the lasting benefit of the nation.
That’s what makes him, if not a great president, then a damned good one.