This week (September 8) in 1974, President Gerald Ford, who had become president of the United States in August upon the resignation of Richard Nixon, announced to the country that he had granted “a full, free and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon” for all offenses Nixon committed related to the Watergate break-in and cover-up, which had led to Nixon’s resignation. “The long national nightmare,” Ford said later, “is over.”
And as it would turn out, so was Ford’s chance for another presidential term. According to numerous historians, politicians and political pundits, the reaction to Ford’s pardon ensured that he would be defeated for president, as indeed he was by Jimmy Carter in 1976. In fact, when Ford called Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill to inform him of his decision to pardon Nixon, the speaker told the president, “You are never going to get elected if you do that.”
The national outrage that followed Ford’s announcement was in part attributable to the sense that Nixon was escaping well-deserved punishment for the two-year drama he had put America through. But there was also the strong suspicion that Ford and Nixon had made a secret deal — Nixon’s resigning the presidency in return for a pardon from President Ford — which Ford vehemently denied, even swearing under oath before the House Judiciary Committee that he had done no such thing.
He had decided on the pardon, Ford explained, because he thought the expected indictment and trial of Nixon (now a private citizen and therefore stripped of the special legal protections accorded presidents) for Watergate crimes would threaten his ability, or any president’s ability, to govern the country. Nixon’s ongoing ordeal would rip the nation apart, distract public officials from their duties, send a strong message of national divisiveness to the world, and further erode America’s morale, which had been battered enough by the Vietnam War.
It was an explanation drowned out by a cacophony of condemnation, and Ford, who was originally viewed by the public as a decent, honest man — in marked contrast to “Tricky Dick” Nixon — became just another cynical pol.
But history has a way of putting things in perspective, and a pardon that seemed calculated and contemptuous in 1974 increasingly looks courageous today — so courageous, in fact, that Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon even won him the prestigious John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award. In backing Ford for the award, the historian and biographer David McCullough (Truman, John Adams, 1776) said Ford is deserving “because the decision facing him was of the highest importance to the nation, and because Ford made his decision knowing that the consequences to him personally would be grave.”
And politically they would be fatal.