Gerald Ford and the Pardon of Richard Nixon

The pardon of Richard Nixon was the most controversial action by Gerald Ford, even raising conspiracy theories that Nixon offered the position to Ford in return for promises of a pardon. Ford has stated he made the decision to pardon Nixon after a news conference in which well over half the questions were about Nixon and not about Ford’s policies. Ford feared that the country would never get over Watergate if a Nixon trial was the major news for the next several years. While it is by definition not possible to know whether a secret conspiracy occurred, I tend to believe Ford’s explanation as opposed to the theories that Ford was picked by Nixon as part of a deal. Besides trusting Ford on this, I doubt that Nixon was realistic enough about the danger he was in at the time of Agnew’s resignation to cut such a deal. The reasons for picking Ford were pretty clear at the time. It would have been far more suspicious if Nixon had chosen an unknown, or a crony of his, as opposed to someone like Jerry Ford who was considered to be a man of honesty and decency by those in both parties.

The question of whether pardoning Nixon would help the country get over Watergate depends upon the time frame. In the immediate weeks afterwards the act did the reverse as many were outraged by the act. As one small, but amusing example, I recall cards in the form of Monopoly “Get Out of Jail Free” cards being distributed at the University of Michigan (our shared alma mater) granting the bearer a “full, free, and absolute pardon.” Ford’s popularity fell and he never recovered, ultimately being beaten by Jimmy Carter. While the nation needed to get over Watergate, the country also needed to have trust in its leaders restored. By pardoning Nixon, Ford violated that trust in the eyes of many people, including his own press secretary, Jerald terHorst who resigned in protest.

If we look at the remainder of the 1970’s it is certainly possible that the country was calmer than if faced with the trial and possible imprisonment of a former President. However it is not the 1970’s I am concerned about now but the present. The pardon established a terrible precedent that the President is above the law and should not be punished for crimes because it would be too hard on the country. Certainly we would not want to be in a situation where political enemies would routinely raise criminal charges against former Presidents, but the situation is different when real crimes were committed. Some say that prosecuting Nixon would have created such a situation, but we saw in the Clinton years that Republicans are already quite capable of going after a President on exaggerated charges.

One legacy of the Ford administration is that Dick Cheney continued to serve in Republican governments. At Newsweek, Richard Wolffe and Holly Baily compare the Bush administration to the Ford administration, but a better comparison would be to Nixon. The lesson Cheney took from the Watergate era was that the power of the Executive Branch was weakened and his goal has been to increase that power, with disastrous results in recent years. Dick Cheney might have had second thoughts about the advice he has given, and George Bush might have had some reservations about taking that advice, if Nixon had been prosecuted. They know that in this partisan era impeachment might be possible but conviction in the Senate is highly unlikely, and it is unlikely they even envisioned impeachment as possible when the House was in Republican hands. Bush also has the right wing noise machine to spin his acts and discredit those who attempt to report about his misconduct and I doubt he ever anticipated how low his approval would become. It is questionable if Nixon could have been forced from office today if he had Fox News defending his every act and attacking those investigating him, and with Congressional Republicans more reluctant to take action against one of their own.

Once faced with a rogue President in the 1970’s the goal should have been to prevent this from ever happening again, as opposed to simply trying to get past the problem. After the Constitutional Convention Benjamin Franklin was asked what type of government we were given and he responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.” The fragility of the liberties which the Founding Fathers fought for must be kept in mind when faced with rogue leaders such as Nixon and Bush who fail to respect the principles of liberty and limited government upon which this nation was founded. We survived Watergate with Nixon in office and we would have survived the aftermath including trials with Nixon out of office. As the New York Times notes, “the nation is strong enough to endure almost anything but burying the truth.”


  1. 1
    janet says:

    Great post, Ron. Hubby and I were talking last night about the why’s and what if’s of this pardon.

  2. 2
    Hell's Handmaiden says:

    This is a very good post about the pardon– thoughtful, insightful.

  3. 3
    Tomas Hakansson says:

    This can only happen in USA. A president is found with his hands in the coccie can, then give his pal Ford the VP job if he promise to save his ass in the end.

    Long live Obama!

    Tomas Hakansson

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