The Nixon Pardon
Closing the Chapter on Watergate Wasn't Done Lightly
Thursday, December 28, 2006
On Sunday, Sept. 8, 1974, President Ford attended church alone. He sat by himself in a pew at St. John's Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square. He took Holy Communion.
Back at the White House at 11:05 a.m., he went on television to announce that he had decided to pardon Richard Nixon for any crimes he committed during Watergate. The country's obsession with the scandal "could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it," he read from a statement. "I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can I must." The core reason for the decision, Ford said, was to put Watergate and the Nixon presidency in the past.
The reverberations from that decision may well have cost Ford his presidency in the next election. In the first week after the pardon, his public approval rating plummeted from 71 percent to 49 percent. Jerry terHorst, Ford's press secretary and friend of 25 years, resigned as a matter of conscience.
Ford had been in office only a month. The pardon came as a surprise -- to Congress and the public -- and it unleashed a wave of outrage and suspicion. Had there been a deal between Nixon and Ford promising a pardon in exchange for Nixon's resignation?
The following account, which attempts to answer that question, comes from official documents, interviews with key players, contemporaneous handwritten notes, memoirs written by participants and conversations with Ford himself.
A Talk With Haig
The chain of events that would lead to the pardon began only five weeks earlier when Ford, who had been vice president only eight months, learned he was about to become president.
At 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 1, 1974, Nixon's chief of staff, Alexander M. Haig, entered the vice president's suite. He looked troubled and on edge.
"Are you ready, Mr. Vice President, to assume the presidency in a short period of time?" Haig asked. New Watergate tapes, he said, would show Nixon had ordered the coverup of the burglary.
Ford was stunned.
Haig presented Ford with six scenarios: Nixon could step aside temporarily under the 25th Amendment, he could just wait and delay the ongoing impeachment process, or he could try to settle for a formal censure. In addition, there were three pardon options. Nixon could pardon himself and resign. Or he could pardon the aides involved and then resign. Or Nixon could agree to leave in return for an agreement that the new President Ford would pardon him.
Haig handed Ford two pieces of paper. The first sheet contained a handwritten summary of a president's legal authority to pardon. The second sheet was a draft pardon form that needed only Ford's signature and Nixon's name to make it legal.
"It's my understanding from a White House lawyer," Haig said, "that the president does have authority to pardon even before criminal action has been taken against an individual."