40 YEARS AGO TODAY
AN IMPUTATION OF GUILT: THE NIXON PARDON
Upon taking office on 8 August 1974, President Gerald R. Ford announced that “our long national nightmare is over.” However, he soon discovered that Richard Nixon may have left office, but he didn’t take Watergate with him. With the prospects of the former president on trial in criminal court and further revelations and constitutional crises over the remaining White House tapes, Ford feared his entire presidency would be consumed with, and the nation crippled by, Nixon’s problems.
Convinced that waiting and half-measures would only prolong the state of national paralysis, Ford decided to act immediately and decisively. On September 8th, 1974, only one month after taking office, he appeared on national television to announce his decision to grant “a full, free and absolute pardon,” to his predecessor, Richard Nixon.
Although a federal grand-jury had voted 19-0 to name Nixon as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the Watergate break-in and cover up, the former president had not been charged, let alone convicted, by any court or jurisdiction. Unable to pardon any specific misdeeds, Ford issued a blanket pardon “for all offenses … Richard Nixon committed, or may have committed,” during the entire time he was in office. The pardon made it impossible for Nixon to be criminally prosecuted not only for Watergate-related crimes, but for any crimes he may have committed while president, including any as of yet undiscovered crimes, regardless of their magnitude. The references to “other crimes” may have alluded to calls made by the New Left to have Nixon tried as a war criminal for his decisions concerning Vietnam and put in trial for his role in domestic incidents, such at the Kent State shootings, demands that had more traction in the wake of Watergate. Ford also noted that the being forced to relinquish the office of the presidency was in itself a form of punishment.
If the public was going to be deprived of the opportunity to see Nixon declared guilty, Ford thought an admission of guilt from his predecessor would make the pardon easier to accept When approached by Ford’s envoys, Nixon initially refused to make any statement concerning Watergate, worrying that it would be used against him in future legal cases. In the end, he provided a strongly-worded statement of contrition that acknowledged no guilt:
That the way I tried to deal with Watergate was the wrong way is a burden I shall bear for every day of the life that is left to me.
In the end Ford had to settle for the words of a 1915 Supreme Court decision concerning the presidential pardoning power, which stated that a pardon “carries an imputation of guilt, acceptance and a confession of it.” He carried a copy of that decision in his wallet until the end of his days to prove to skeptics that he had indeed extracted a confession of guilt from Nixon by virtue of his declaration, and the former president’s acceptance, of the pardon.
Ford was awash in good wishes after taking office. The new president was unpretentious, direct, and warm—the opposite of the dark, brooding, intellectual Nixon. Ford’s approval ratings in August were over 70%. After the pardon, they plunged overnight. The pardon was overwhelmingly decried, the public believing that a deal made between Nixon and Ford prior to Nixon’s resignation. Ford’s longtime aide and press secretary Jerry ter Horst resigned in protest. Calls for Ford’s resignation came soon after. The president was called before the House Judiciary Committee by his old congressional pals to account for his decision, where he was met with hostile questioning. Shortly after the Nixon pardon, Ford introduced a conditional amnesty program for Vietnam War draft dodgers who had fled to countries such as Canada as well as for military deserters.
In November of 1976, after running a campaign against “the Nixon-Ford administrations,” democratic Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia defeated Gerald Ford in the presidential election by a narrow margin. Ford’s loss has always been attributed to the Nixon pardon, which 40 years later seems like the right decision to have made at the time.
Former President Gerald R. Ford died at the age of 93 in 2006.