On October 17, 1974, President Gerald Ford explains to Congress why he had chosen to pardon his predecessor, Richard Nixon, rather than allow Congress to pursue legal action against the former president.
Congress had accused Nixon of obstruction of justice during the investigation of the Watergate scandal, which began in 1972. White House tape recordings revealed that Nixon knew about and possibly authorized the bugging of the Democratic National Committee offices, located in the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. Rather than be impeached and removed from office, Nixon chose to resign on August 8, 1974.
When he assumed office on August 9, 1974, Ford, referring to the Watergate scandal, announced that America’s “long national nightmare” was over. There were no historical or legal precedents to guide Ford in the matter of Nixon’s pending indictment, but after much thought, he decided to give Nixon a full pardon for all offenses against the United States in order to put the tragic and disruptive scandal behind all concerned. Ford justified this decision by claiming that a long, drawn-out trial would only have further polarized the public. Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon was condemned by many and is thought to have contributed to Ford’s failure to win the presidential election of 1976.
From his home in California, Nixon responded to Ford’s pardon, saying he had gained a different perspective on the Watergate affair since his resignation. He admitted that he was “wrong in not acting more decisively and more forthrightly in dealing with Watergate, particularly when it reached the stage of judicial proceedings and grew from a political scandal into a national tragedy.”
READ MORE: The Watergate Scandal: A Timeline
President Ford’s statement on pardoning Richard Nixon, 1974
In this speech before the Congressional Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, of October 17, 1974, President Gerald Ford explains his decision to pardon former President Richard Nixon for his role in the Watergate scandal. Nixon had resigned on August 9, 1974, and Ford pardoned his disgraced predecessor a month later, on September 8. When Ford appeared before the subcommittee to explain the controversial pardon, he asserted that his purpose in granting it was “to change our national focus. . . to shift our attentions from the pursuit of a fallen President to the pursuit of the urgent needs of a rising nation.” Ford noted that while Nixon had not requested the pardon, “the passions generated” by prosecuting him “would seriously disrupt the healing of our country from the great wounds of the past.” Ford declared that “the general view of the American people was to spare the former President from a criminal trial” and that sparing Nixon from prosecution would “not cause us to forget the evils of Watergate-type offenses or to forget the lessons we have learned.”
A full transcript is available.
My appearance at this hearing of your distinguished Subcommittee of the House Committee on the Judiciary has been looked upon as an unusual historic event - - one that has no firm precedent in the whole history of Presidential relations with the Congress. Yet, I am here not to make history, but to report on history.
The history you are interested in covers so recent a period that it is still not well understood. If, with your assistance, I can make for better understanding of the pardon of our former President, then we can help to achieve the purpose I had for granting the pardon when I did.
That purpose was to change our national focus. I wanted to do all I could to shift our attentions from the pursuit of a fallen President to the pursuit of the urgent needs of a rising nation. Our nation is under the severest of challenges now to employ its full energies and efforts in the pursuit of a sound and growing economy at home and a stable and peaceful world around us.
The decision by President Gerald Ford to grant Richard Nixon, his disgraced predecessor in office, a pardon in the wake of the Watergate scandal shocked and surprised many lawmakers. Ford’s sky-high approval ratings plummeted. A New York Times editorial characterized the pardon as a “profoundly unwise, divisive, and unjust act” that in a stroke of a pen had destroyed the unelected president’s “credibility as a man of judgment, candor and competence.”
In an effort to quell the ensuing political firestorm, Ford on this day in 1974 testified before the Democrat-led House Judiciary Committee. His testimony sought to justify his decision, which barred Congress and the courts from pursuing judicial action against Nixon. Ford was the first president to testify before the House since Abraham Lincoln did so during the Civil War.
Members of Congress had accused Nixon of seeking to obstruct justice during the investigation. (The cascading Watergate affair began in 1972 with a break-in into the offices at the Democratic National Committee in an office building adjacent to the Watergate Hotel.)
White House tape recordings, which Nixon had been compelled to release, revealed that the president, contrary to his assertions, knew about and possibly authorized the attempted bugging of the Democratic site. Rather than face the risk of being impeached by the House and removed from office by the Senate, Nixon resigned on Aug. 8, 1974.
When he assumed office in the wake of Nixon’s departure from the White House, Ford proclaimed that America’s “long national nightmare” was over.
There were no historical or legal precedents to guide Ford in how to deal with a near-inevitable Nixon indictment. Ford sought to justify his decision by asserting that a long, drawn-out trial would have further polarized public opinion.
From his California home, Nixon, in responding to the pardon, said he had gained a fresh perspective on the Watergate affair since his resignation. He allowed as how he was “wrong in not acting more decisively and more forthrightly in dealing with Watergate, particularly when it reached the stage of judicial proceedings and grew from a political scandal into a national tragedy.”
Ford’s decision contributed to his defeat by Democrat Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election.
Ford Testimony on Nixon Pardon
2004-10-11T18:03:19-04:00 https://images.c-span.org/Files/566/20041011180742001.jpg Following public outcry over his pardon of President Nixon, President Ford testified about his reasons for the pardon and denied that there had been any quid pro quo. A sitting president had not testified before Congress since President Lincoln.
These hearings were presented as Congress, the media, and members of the public scrutinized President Clinton&rsquos pardons of several individuals on his last day in office. They were presented again to mark the 30th anniversary of President Ford&rsquos testimony about his decision to pardon his predecessor, Richard Nixon, for all offenses regarding Watergate. President Ford appeared before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Criminal Justice on October 17, 1974. He had issued the pardon on September 8, 1974.
Tape provided courtesy of NBC.
Following public outcry over his pardon of President Nixon, President Ford testified about his reasons for the pardon and denied that there had been… read more
Following public outcry over his pardon of President Nixon, President Ford testified about his reasons for the pardon and denied that there had been any quid pro quo. A sitting president had not testified before Congress since President Lincoln.
“I have never been a quitter . . .”
Early on the morning of June 17, 1972, five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC. The aftermath brought the first resignation of a sitting President, a pardon, and a national uproar.
The story of Watergate and the Nixon administration’s involvement has become synonymous with government scandal. As we approach the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, we take a moment to reflect on that period in our history.
Section 4 of Article II of the United States Constitution states, “The President, Vice President, and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
Until 1974, Congress had only once attempted to impeach the President—Andrew Johnson in 1868. In the wake of the Watergate scandal, the House Judiciary Committee recommended that the President be impeached. Facing certain impeachment and removal from office, Nixon decided to resign.
On the night of August 8, 1974, President Richard Nixon announced his resignation to the American people live via television and radio. To an anxious public, President Nixon explained, “I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as President, I must put the interest of America first.” He then announced, “I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.”
The next day, on August 9, 1974, President Nixon sent his resignation letter to Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger.
The story of Nixon’s resignation may have ended there, but on September 8, 1974, newly sworn-in President R. Gerald Ford opened a new chapter when he issued a highly controversial Proclamation Granting Pardon to Richard Nixon.
In the proclamation, President Ford cited the “tranquility to which this nation has been restored by the events of recent weeks”—Nixon’s resignation—“could be irreparably lost by the prospects of bringing to trial a former President of the United States.”
Ford wholeheartedly believed that a trial would only bring more division as well as “exposing to further punishment and degradation of a man who has already paid the unprecedented penalty of relinquishing the highest elective office of the United States.”
Nixon’s letter of resignation and Ford’s subsequent pardon are among the holdings of the National Archives. They are on display in the in the East Rotunda Gallery at the National Archives in Washington, DC, from August 8 to 11, 2014.
FORD DEFENDS PARDON BEFORE HOUSE PANEL AND SAYS THERE WAS ‘NO DEAL’ WITH NIXON
WASHINGTON, Oct. 17 —President Ford, in a historic appearance before a House subcommittee, attempted today to lay to rest suspicions raised by his unconditional pardon of his predecessor, Richard M. Nixon.
In what many historians believe to have been the first formal appearance by a sitting President before a Congressional panel, Mr. Ford testified that he had granted the pardon solely “out of my concern to serve the best interests of my country.”
Transcript of Ford hearing is on Pages 18–20.
“There was no deal, period,” he declared.
“I assure you,” he said, addressing the millions of television, viewers as well as the members of the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, “that there never was at any time any agreement whatsoever concerning a pardon to Mr. Nixon if he were to resign and I were to become President.”
Yet, despite Mr. Ford's effort to “make for better understanding of the pardon,” his appearance generated still further questions in the minds of his political opponents.
Discussion With Haig
He told the subcommittee, for example, that, eight days before the resignation, Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr., Mr. Nixon's chief adviser, brought up with Mr. Ford the possibility of a pardon for Mr. Nixon.
Mr. Ford said today that he made no commitment then, but he could shed no light on what General Haig, then Mr. Nixon's chief of staff, might have reported back to Mr. Nixon.
Moreover, Democratic politicians seemed prepared to try to capitalize on Mr. Ford's acknowledgement that he intern tionally misled reporters in the days before Mr. Nixon resigned.
Mr. Ford said today that he had made misleading statements to the press because he felt that any change in his previously stated views would have led newsmen to think that he wanted the President to resign.
Mr. Ford insisted that the purpose of the pardon “was to change our national focus.” He told the subcommittee, “I wanted to do all I could to shift our attentions from the pursuit of a fallen President to the pursuit of the urgent needs of a rising nation.”
Deference and Thanks
The President was not placed under oath today, and, for the most part, the nine subcommittee members treated Mr. Ford with deference. They addressed him as “Mr. President,” never interrupted him, and thanked him after virtually every response.
But some of the questions reflected the bitter feelings engendered in much of the country by the irrevocable decision to pardon Mr. Nixon before any charges had been brought against him.
Representative Don Edwards, a liberal California Democrat, was the first to ask such a question.
“Mr. President,” he said, “put yourself in the position of a high school teacher, shall we say, in Watts or the barrios of San Jose or Harlem, and, if you were such a teacher, how would you explain to the young people the American concept of equal justice under law?”
Mr. Ford replied by saying that Mr. Nixon was “the only President in the history of this country who has resigned under shame and disgrace” and that “that in and of itself can be understood, can be explained to students or to others.”
Representative James R. Mann, a South Carolina Democrat, spoke of the possibility that the pardon might have effectively terminated the special prosecutor's investigation of “other parties and other possible defendants in getting to the true facts of the matter that has disturbed our national political life during these past two years.”
Mr. Ford responded that the pardon would have no “impact on any other mandate that the special prosecutor's office had.”
Finally, as the noon deadline set by Mr. Ford approached, Representative Elizabeth Holtzman of Brooklyn, the junior Demecrat on the subcommittee, got her turn to question the President.
Expression of Dismay
She began by expressing he “dismay” that, because of the brief time allotted for questioning, the subcommittee would “not be able to provide to the American public the full truth and all the facts respecting your issuance of a pardon to Richard Nixon.”
Then the 33‐year‐old lawyer in her first term in Congress cited the “very dark suspicions that have been created in the public's mind,” and she posed a half‐dozen questions that she said demanded answers.
Why was Mr. Nixon pardoned without specifying Ms crimes or obtaining a confession of guilt? Why was the Attorney General not consulted? Why were the deliberations conducted in such haste and with such secrecy? What was the connection between the pardon and the agreement giving Mr. Nixon control lover access to his tape recordings? Why was a lawyer under criminal investigation used as an intermediary? And why was the special prosecutor not consulted?
Miss Holtzman did not wait for answers. She said she did not have time to do so. Instead, she posed still another question.
Would the President, she asked, be willing to turn over to the Judiciary. Committee all tape recordings of conversations between him and Mr. Nixon to insure the public that the pardon and the tapes agreement did not result from Mr. Ford's desire to keep such a conversation secret.
No Direct Answer
Mr. Ford did not answer the final question directly. He said only that the tapes would continue to be available to the special prosecutor's office.
But, in his opening statement and in his answers to questions from other subcommittee members, Mr. Ford did address some of the other questions put by Miss Holtzman.
No conditions were placed on the pardon, and Mr. Nixon was not asked to make a confession, Mr. Ford declared, but he said that the former President's acceptance of the pardon inplied an admission of guilt.
While discussions about the custody of the tapes were “related in time to the pardon discussions,” the President said, they “were not a basis for my decision to grant a pardon to the former President.”
As for the timing of the pardon, Mr. Ford said he had “thought about that a great deal, because there has been criticism of the timing.”
He noted that some critics argued that he should have waited for an indictment, others said he should have allowed the matter to go to trial and still others said he should have waited to see if Mr. Nixon received a jail sentence.
Such processes, he said, would have taken at least a year and probably longer,” and, during that time, “the opportunity for our Government and the President, and Congress and others to get to the problems we have would have been, I think, deeply upset and roadblocked.”
‘Various Possible Options’
“So,” the President said, “I'm convinced, after reflection, as I was previously, that the timing of the pardon was done at the right time.”
Mr. Ford said that he had consulted his staff lawyers about legal considerations involved in the pardon but had received advice from no one about whether he should actually grant the pardon.
In his 40‐minute opening statement, Mr. Ford said his first discussion of a pardon came on Aug. 1, five days after the Judiciary Committee had approved its first Article of Impeachment and two days after the committee concluded its proceedings.
General Haig came to him that day, Mr. Ford said, and described to him “the critical evidence on the tape of June 23, 1973.” It was the eventual disclosure of that tape, showing indisputably Mr. Nixon's involvement in the Watergate cover‐up, that led to Mr. Nixon's resignation on Aug. 9.
The main purpose of the Haig visit, Mr. Ford said, was to presure him “to assume the Pres idency within a very short time.”
But, in the course of the meeting, according to Mr. Ford, Mr. Haig mentioned that the White House staff was considering “various possible options.”
One alternative, Mr. Ford said he was told, was for Mr. Nixon to step aside temporarily. Another was for him to delay resignation until further along the impeachment process. A third was to try to persuade Congress to settle for a censure vote rather than an impeachment trial.
But, according to Mr. Ford, three of the options involved pardons. There was the “question of whether the President could pardon himself.” There was thought given to “pardoning various Watergate defendants, then himself, followed by resignation.”
And, finally, Mr. Ford said, there was the possibility under consideration of “a pardon to the President, should he resign.”
Mr. Ford said that he told Mr. Haig he needed “time to think.” The next day, he testified, he talked with James D. St. Clair, Mr. Nixon's impeachment attorney and was told that Mr. St. Clair “had not been the source of any opinion about Presidential pardon power.”
Then, Mr. Ford said, he called Mr. Haig and told him that “I had no intention of recommending what President Nixon shaùId do about resigning or not resigning and that nothing we had talked about the previous afternoon should be given any consideration in whatever decision the President might make.”
In response to a question of whether Mr. Haig had discussed the pardon issue with Mr. Nixon, Mr. Ford said, not to my knowledge. If any such discussion did occur, they could not have been a factor in my decision to grant the pardon when I did, because I was not aware of them.”
Trip to the South
On Aug. 3, 4 and 5—the day following his discussions with Mr. Haig and Mr. St. Clair—Mr. Ford took a previously planned trip to Mississippi and Louisiana. On the trip, he repeated what he had been saying for months—that he did not believe Mr. Nixon was guilty of an impeachable offense.
Today, Mr. Ford said he had given misleading answers to press inquiries because “any change from my stated views, or even refusal to comment further, I feared, would lead in the press to conclusions that I now wanted to see the President resign to avoid an impeachment vote in the House and probably conviction vote in the Senate.”
Mr. Ford testified that he did not again give serious thought to the pardon matter until Aug 27, when he was preparing for his first news conference the next day. Staff members advised him, he said, that he should be prepared to field questions about a possible pardon.
Lincoln May Have Testified
Although there were contemporary newspaper accounts of an appearance by Abraham Lincoln before a House committee, researchers at the Library of Congress have found no documentary proof of such an appearance. Many historians believe that Mr. Ford's testimony was unprecedented.
At the outset of hearings this morning, Mr. Ford stated his firm belief in the need for a President — even former Presidents—to keep certain communications confidential.
He said he had decided to appear today to answer questions posed in two resolutions of inquiry—devices used by Congress to obtain information from the executive branch—because he was the only person who could set the record straight on the pardon. But he said that he did not intend to set a precedent for himself or future Presidents.
Devin Thorpe: Now we see why Gerald Ford was wrong to pardon Richard Nixon
In this March 11, 1989, photo Donald Trump shakes hands with former President Richard Nixon at a tribute gala to Nellie Connally at the Westin Galleria ballroom in Houston, Texas. The letters between Trump and Nixon revealed for the first time in an exhibit that opens Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020, at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum, show the two men engaged in something of an exercise in mutual affirmation. The museum shared the letters exclusively with The Associated Press ahead of the exhibit’s opening. (Richard Carson/Houston Chronicle via AP)
Before a loose consensus formed that President Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon was the right thing to do for a deeply divided nation, Ford was pilloried in the press and vilified in Congress. He then proceeded to lose his election for a full term as president to Georgia governor and peanut farmer Jimmy Carter.
America’s initial reaction to the pardon was the right one.
As America’s anger about Watergate faded and people in both parties moved on to other things, many of us reached the conclusion that sparing the nation the collective shame of trying an already humbled former president was key to healing deep wounds.
That collective view has largely held up, even leading to some discussion about President Joe Biden pardoning Donald Trump. A key aspect of Ford’s decision to pardon his predecessor reportedly involved the legal principle that accepting a pardon is an admission of guilt.
As Americans reflect on the past 50 years, we collectively see Watergate and the pardon through a new lens tinted by Trump, America’s first president to be impeached twice. Thus seen, Ford’s pardon was the huge error his early critics argued because it led directly, albeit not immediately, to Trump.
The tattoo of Richard Nixon between the shoulder blades of Trump confidant and Nixon advisor Roger Stone provides the clearest connection but not the only tether between the two most corrupt presidents of the past 60 years — if not all of U.S. history.
Ford’s pardon established a precedent: The worst fate an American president can face is removal from office. While I was among those who believed for nearly 50 years that it was a sufficient punishment for Nixon’s high crimes and misdemeanors, I failed to conceive of a president who would be undeterred by shame, truth or even democracy.
Trump has exploited that precedent. By concluding that the only thing that could happen to him would be to lose the White House and return to his jet-setting lifestyle atop his self-branded business empire, he was emboldened to exceed all the norms established by his predecessors.
This tendency became clear following the 2016 election — which he won — when he falsely and without basis decried the millions of fraudulent votes cast. This off-the-rails behavior even before taking office now has a more sinister implication as it appears to have been part of a larger strategy to allow him to declare victory in 2020 if, as it turned out in fact, he lost the election.
His effort even included, if one is inclined to believe the Article of Impeachment approved by the U.S. House of Representatives — or one’s own eyes and ears — inciting violent insurrection.
As new chapters are written, history puts the past in new context. Trump’s legacy reframes Ford’s pardon as the poor decision it was viewed as being in 1974.
This week, the United States Senate will conduct a second impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump. Let us hope it learns from Ford’s lesson. America’s democracy won’t survive an even worse president.
(Courtesy photo) Devin Thorpe, the Democratic nominee in the 3rd Congressional District.
Devin Thorpe ran for Congress in 2020 in Utah as a Democrat. Previously he was a regular Forbes contributor and worked for then-U.S. Sen. Jake Garn.
Donate to the newsroom now. The Salt Lake Tribune, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) public charity and contributions are tax deductible
Pardons and the Trump Administration
As of December 2020, Trump has pardoned 70 people and commuted the sentences of 24 others. Among them are several of the President's own friends and supporters. Although Trump has been criticized for that, it’s not without precedent: In 2001, for example, President Bill Clinton pardoned his half-brother, Roger Clinton, for a 1985 conviction related to distributing cocaine.
Trump has pardoned fewer people than any of his modern predecessors. His immediate forerunner, President Barack Obama, encouraged people to apply for clemency and granted 212 pardons and commuted 1,715 sentences during his eight years in office, most for low-level drug offenses. But in the modern era, pardons are most common during the waning days of a president’s tenure. Trump’s most divisive pardons could be yet to come.
Even if Trump ultimately does grant some form of clemency to his children or himself, the presidential pardon is not a blanket protection against prosecution. Since the power only applies to federal crimes, states can still bring criminal charges against someone who has been pardoned—no matter who that person might be.
Pardon for What?
Far from writing “The End” on the tragedy of Watergate, President Ford's sweeping pardon of former President Nixon has only muddied further the ambiguities and uncertainties left in the wake of that whole lamentable episode. A more divisive and distasteful outcome could scarcely be imagined.
Mr. Ford himself, in explaining his action, noted that “serious allegations and accusations hang like a sword over our former President's head.” What Mr. Ford failed to explain was hovir a Presidential pardon would resolve those allegations. Though now protected in his person, Mr. Nixon's stewardship in the office of President will be more open to controversy than ever before. How are the citizens of today and of future generations to know, beyond challenge, whether any or all of the criminal accusations against the former President were justified, whether they could be made to stick before a jury of citizens within the system of criminal justice?
Even upon his pardon, Mr. Nixon acknowledged having made only “mistakes and misjudgments.” That is far short of specification of a crime, much less confession of one. In a legal sense, even the act of pardon is apparently no confirmation that crimes were actually committed—constitutional scholars come down on both sides of this point. Certainly, the way in which President Ford exercised his pardoning power gives no definition of the offenses or crimes for which he seems to believe Mr. Nixon needs the protection of clemency.
We have previously regretted that Mr. Nixon's preemptive resignation deprived the nation of a definitive vote by the Congress on the charges brought against him in the aborted impeachment proceedings—though the House Judiciary Committee's evidence and votes left no basis for doubt in the mind of Mr. Nixon or anyone else that impeachment by the House and removal by the Senate were certainties. A verdict on at least the criminal element in these charges—reached after Mr. Nixon had stopped being President—would have supplied a comparably definitive assessment arrived at through the system of justice, with all its safeguards and possibilities for acquittal as well as conviction.
Now, by President Ford's ill‐considered action, the nation is in danger of losing even that note of clarity a morass which has confused and divided a frustrated populace for two long years. Without the firm seal a conclusive judgment by constitutional institutions, the way will be open wide for a subsequent demagogic rewriting of history that could poison the political atmosphere for generations to come.
There is now a strong case for the full House of Representatives to resume consideration of the Judiciary Committee's impeachment report, and vote on it in some form that would stand as a formal verdict by the Congress. Beyond that, President Ford has an obligation define just what crimes he is pardoning Mr. Nixon for. Even in the case of former Vice President Agnew, the Justice Department insisted on publishing a full bill of particulars so that no ambiguities remained on the public record when he was permitted to escape the punishment normal for the offenses charged.
It should not have to fall to a grand jury or, the special Watergate prosecutor to make a presentment against Mr. Nixon. President Ford has taken upon himself the public responsibility for shutting and sealing the book on the misdeeds of the man who made him Vice President and now President. There are too many mysterious circumstances surrounding the decision for anyone to have confidence that the whole story is out. The least Mr. Ford can do is to tell the American people, without ambiguity or extralegal emotionalism, just what the case against Mr. Nixon was.
Ford pardoned Nixon and lost his presidency / Intrigue of executive power includes today's players Cheney and Rumsfeld
31days16.jpg President Gerald Ford, right, at the swearing-in ceremony for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, left, on November 20, 1975. Rumsfeld, former White House chief of staff, was nominated after Ford dismissed James R. Schlesinger. PHOTO CREDIT: UPI UPI 1975
The Crisis That Gave Us the Government We Have Today
NAN A. TALESE/DOUBLEDAY 405 PAGES $26
As presidents go, Gerald Ford is just not that famous. With the second shortest tenure of the 20th century -- only 13 days longer than Warren Harding's -- his presidency simply doesn't have as much to remember as most. Even by 1992, the title of John Updike's novel "Memories of the Ford Administration" seemed designed to elicit a snicker from the reader by conjuring up a period of such obscurity. It was a short time but a strange one, author Barry Werth reminds us and, as the subtitle of his "31 Days: The Crisis That Gave Us the Government We Have Today" indicates, a period whose effects he believes we're dealing with to this day.
Chosen by Richard Nixon and ratified by Congress to replace Vice President Spiro Agnew after the exposure of Agnew's financial misdoings when he was governor of Maryland, Ford, after Nixon's resignation, became the first and still the only person to serve as U.S. president without ever having been elected to national office. Had the 25th Amendment to the Constitution not been adopted in 1967, it would have been Democratic Speaker of the House Carl Albert who would have assumed the top job, rather than Ford, then serving as Republican House minority leader.
Ford started with one immense asset as he took office on Aug. 8, 1974 -- a nation overjoyed by the simple fact that he wasn't Nixon. As that close observer of the period Hunter S. Thompson put it, "I was ready to give the benefit of the doubt to almost any president who acted half human and had enough sense not to walk around in public wearing a swastika armband." But the national sense of relief could only take Ford so far, and Werth's straightforward account takes us day-by-day through the process by which he squandered much of the goodwill.
Immediately dominating Ford's agenda were the questions of what to do about his predecessor and his successor -- and himself. Ford's appointment as vice president had cleared the Democratic-controlled Congress on the understanding that he would not be a 1976 presidential candidate, but he quickly decided that the fact that he now was already president rendered that declaration inoperative, and he announced that he would indeed run for a full term. As for a new vice president, by the second week of his presidency, the candidates were narrowed to Nelson Rockefeller George H.W. Bush, whom Nixon once described as "a total Nixon man, first" and "an apparent standby -- [Donald] Rumsfeld, who coincidentally began to attract notice from network news crews as something of a mystery man in Ford's retinue, the angular, blunt-spoken NATO ambassador notably nearer the president's side than his age, duties, experience, or title seemed to explain." (His consolation prize was his first stint as secretary of defense.)
Rockefeller ultimately got the nod, marking the last time that any Republican remotely considered a liberal would hold national office. (Lest anyone think that Ford fit that description, Werth reminds us that he had previously attempted to impeach liberal Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, arguing that "an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history," a definition that served a future Republican Congress well during the Clinton impeachment.) Rockefeller would later be nudged off the re-election ticket in favor of Sen. Robert Dole.
And what to do with Nixon? Foreshadowing current White House policy, Nixon once said, "When the president does it, that means it's not illegal," but the 38-member House Judiciary Committee had unanimously found that he had "condoned, encouraged . directed, coached and personally helped to fabricate perjury." Half the country felt that he had suffered enough, while much of the other half probably felt that he couldn't suffer enough. When his underlings were either serving prison terms -- such as Chuck Colson, head "plumber" of the leak-plugging Watergate break-in unit, who had already found Jesus in a federal penitentiary -- or awaiting trial, such as "Nixon's Germans," domestic affairs adviser John Ehrlichman and White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, self-described as "Nixon's SOB" -- should Nixon get off? And what of the 200,000 Americans who stood accused of draft law violation, 50,000 of whom had gone to Canada rather than serve in the Vietnam War?
Ultimately, Ford failed to anticipate the "vehemence of the hostile reaction to my decision," and pardoned Nixon. His own press secretary, Jerry terHorst, resigned, and Ford's approval rating sank from a spectacular 70 percent to 48 percent. Given the slim margin of his loss to Jimmy Carter, it seems fair to say that this act cost him the White House.
It's not clear whether younger readers will muster the motivation to pick out the players of later Republican administrations from the pages of the Ford era (his other spectacular contribution was naming Dick Cheney as White House chief of staff), but "31 Days" conveys one fact that seems particularly to the point today as we meander into our fourth year of purposeless war in Iraq: An additional 20,552 American troops were killed after the United States started discussing withdrawal from Vietnam. On the other hand, those old enough to have watched the parade of strange characters and revelations on the televised Watergate hearings may find "31 Days" a bittersweet reminder of why they will always believe that anyone who came along afterward does not really know what reality television is all about.
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Washington, Sept. 8--President Ford granted former President Richard M. Nixon an unconditional pardon today for all Federal crimes that he "committed or may have committed or taken part in" while in office, an act Mr. Ford said was intended to spare Mr. Nixon and the nation further punishment in the Watergate scandals.
Mr. Nixon, in San Clemente, Calif., accepted the pardon, which exempts him from indictment and trial for, among other things, his role in the cover-up of the Watergate burglary. He issued a statement saying that he could now see he was "wrong in not acting more decisively and more forthrightly in dealing with Watergate."
Phillip W. Buchen, the White House counsel, who advised Mr. Ford on the legal aspects of the pardon, said the "act of mercy" on the President&aposs part was done without making any demands on Mr. Nixon and without asking the advice of the Watergate special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, who had the legal responsibility to prosecute the case.
Reaction to the pardon was sharply divided, but not entirely along party lines. Most Democrats who commented voiced varying degrees of disapproval and dismay, while most Republican comment backed President Ford.
However, Senators Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts and Jacob K. Javits of New York disagreed with the action.
Dangers Seen in Delay
Mr. Buchen said that, at the President&aposs request, he had asked Mr. Jaworski how long it would be, in the event Mr. Nixon was indicted, before he could be brought to trial and that Mr. Jaworski had replied it would be at least nine months or more, because of the enormous amount of publicity the charges against Mr. Nixon had received when the House Judiciary Committee recommended impeachment.
This was one reason Mr. Ford cited for granting the pardon, saying he had concluded that "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, 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," Mr. Ford said in a 10-minute statement that he read this morning in the Oval Office upon signing the pardon.
Mr. Ford&aposs decision was not unexpected, in light of his previous statements that he thought the former President had suffered enough by being forced from office. Yet the unconditional nature of the pardon, taken without the recommendation of Mr. Jaworski, was more generous to Mr. Nixon than many had expected.
Mr. Buchen, the President&aposs soft-spoken, white-haired lawyer, said, in response to questions, that no effort had been made to obtain acknowledgement of wrongdoing. When Vice President Agnew resigned last October he pleaded no contest to a charge of tax evasion and agreed to a bill of particulars that described in detail a number of other serious charges against him.
Before Mr. Ford finally decided to grant the pardon, the White House lawyers obtained from Mr. Nixon a letter in which he agreed to make available to the courts any subpoenaed records and tape recordings. But the agreement is also favorable to Mr. Nixon in that the documents are judged to be his personal property and the many tape recordings not yet made public are to be destroyed.
The only adverse aspect of today&aposs action from Mr. Nixon&aposs point of view is that he can now be more easily forced to testify in the forthcoming trial of several of his former aides accused of obstruction of justice in the Watergate case. The defendants have already subpoenaed the former President for the trial scheduled to open Sept. 30, and Mr. Nixon, having been pardoned, cannot decline to testify under the Fifth Amendment, which protects citizens against self-incrimination.
Mr. Ford&aposs action today was a sharp reversal from the position his aides conveyed as he ascended to the Presidency on Aug. 9.
What would be done about prosecuting the former President was even then a major question, because Mr. Nixon admitted in a statement of Aug. 5 that he had ordered a halt to the investigation of the Watergate burglary, for political as well as national security reasons. Tape recordings released at the same time documented this.
J. F. terHorst, Mr. Ford&aposs press Secretary, when asked Aug. 9 whether Mr. Ford would grant a pardon, pointed out that the new President had addressed that question in his confirmation hearings for Vice President before the Senate Rules Committee late last year.
Mr. Ford was asked then whether if a President resigned, his successor would have the power to prevent a criminal investigation or prosecution of the former President.
However, since taking office, there have been several changes. Mr. Nixon, in seclusion in San Clemente, has been reported by his friends to be deeply depressed and some have said that the legal troubles he faced were causing him so much anguish that his health was in jeopardy.
At the same time, high Republican officials, including Nelson A. Rockefeller, Mr. Ford&aposs selection for Vice President, put out statements saying that the former President had suffered enough, and Mr. Ford agreed.
The way for a Presidential pardon was further prepared when Mr. Ford came out for conditional amnesty for Vietnam draft evaders and deserters as an act of mercy and as a means of uniting the nation.
The most surprising aspect of Mr. Fords&apos action was that it came on Sunday morning when the Government buildings were almost empty and no one was expecting any dramatic Presidential action. Mr. Ford attended early morning communion at St. John&aposs Episcopal Church, then returned to the White House to make the announcement. He had chosen the Sabbath, it was learned later, to emphasize that the pardon was an act of mercy, not justice.
At 11:04 Mr. Ford walked into his Oval Office where a small group of reporters and photographers was waiting, and sat at his desk. His face was grave.
He then opened a manila folder and began reading his decision, looking occasionally into the cameras, which were filming the event for later showing. He spoke of the difficulty of the decision.
"To procrastinate, to agonize and to wait for a more favorable turn of events that may never come," he said, "or more compelling external pressures that may as well be wrong as right, is itself a decision of sorts and a weak and potentially dangerous course for President to follow."
Of President Nixon and his family, Mr. Ford said: "Theirs is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write &aposThe End&apos to it. I have concluded that only I can do that."
He pointed out that there was no historical or legal precedent for him to follow. Never before had a president resigned from office and never before had a former President been faced with criminal prosecution.
"But," Mr. Ford said, "it is common knowledge that serious allegations and accusations hang like a sword over our former President&aposs head, threatening his health, as he tries to reshape his life, a great part of which was spent in the service of this country and by the mandate of its people."
The worlds, "threatening his health," were not in Mr. Ford&aposs prepared remarks, and his assistants said later that he had added them because of the reports that Mr. Nixon "is not well."
He then spoke of the un-Mr. Nixon and said that Mr. Nixon, instead of enjoying equal treatment under the law, "would be cruelly and excessively penalized in preserving the presumption of his innocence or in obtaining a speedy determination of his guilt in avoidable delay in any trial of order to repay a legal debt to society."
In the end, he added, the courts might well hold that Mr. Nixon had been denied due process and "the verdict of history would even be more inconclusive with respect to those charges arising out of the period of his Presidency."
But he said that his decision had been based first on the public good and "my conscience tells me clearly and certainly that I cannot prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed."
"Finally," Mr. Ford said, "I feel that Richard Nixon and his loved ones have suffered enough, and will continue to suffer no matter what I do, no matter what we as a great and good nation can do together to make his goal of peace come true."
At that, Mr. Ford took a blue silver felt-tip pen and signed the proclamation granting the pardon, reading the key paragraph:
"Now, therefore, I Gerald R. Ford, President of the United States, pursuant to the pardon power conferred upon me by Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution, have granted and by these presents do grant a full, free and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or taken part in during the period from Jan. 20, 1969, through Aug. 9, 1974."
Mr. Buchen later briefed reporters on the events leading up to today&aposs action. Sitting before the podium of the briefing room, Mr. Buchen, making his first public appearance as White House counsel, said Mr. Ford approached him about the pardon about a week ago and asked him to make a study of the matter.
Mr. Buchen said that he had first consulted Mr. Jaworski about what a trial of Richard Nixon would involve and got in writing, a statement that it would be "unprecedented."
Mr. Jaworski told him, he said, that the events leading up to Mr. Nixon&aposs resignation--the House Judiciary Committee&aposs recommendation for impeachment, the release of the tapes showing Mr. Nixon ordered a halt to the Watergate investigation six days after the burglary at the Democratic national offices here, on June 17, 1972, the decision of Republicans who had been supporting Mr. Nixon in Congress to vote for his impeachment or conviction on the basis of the new evidence--would necessitate a long delay because it would involve much "prejudicial, pretrial material" that the courts would have to dispose of.
Mr. Jaworski advised Mr. Buchen, the President&aposs counsel said, that the case against Mr. Nixon was "readily distinguishable" from that against the Watergate defendants whose trial is set for Sept. 30, because they had not been tried before a Congressional body in the way, Mr. Nixon had in the impeachment proceedings.
Mr. Buchen said that he had picked a Washington lawyer, Benton L. Becker, to negotiate with Mr. Nixon and his lawyers. Mr. Becker, a friend of both the President and Mr. Buchen, went to San Clemente last week and advised Mr. Nixon that he probably would receive a pardon. Mr. Nixon told Mr. Becker, either personally or through an aide, that in such an event he intended to issue a statement similar to the one he put out today a few minutes after Mr. Fords&apos announcement.
Mr. Ford, after announcing the decision, went to the Burning Tree Country Club and played a round of golf. At the White House, switchboard operators said, "angry calls, heavy and constant," began jamming their boards soon after Mr. Ford&aposs announcement.