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The Costly Nixon Pardon
Political Junkie
Send your questions about campaigns and elections.

By Ken Rudin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, June 15, 2001

Question: Was the general consensus in 1974 that there was a payoff between Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford for the Nixon pardon? If President Ford had not granted the pardon, would he have had a reasonably decent chance of winning in 1976? Or was the Republican Party so damaged from Watergate that he would have lost, pardon or no pardon?
– David Gardner, New York, N.Y.

The issue that may have cost Ford the election. (Collection of Ken Rudin)

Answer: There were plenty of people who believed, and still believe, that there was a deal in which Nixon would agree to resign if Ford, his successor, would grant him an unconditional pardon. Ford, of course, denied the charge. In issuing the pardon on Sept. 8, 1974, Ford said that while Nixon had "suffered enough," his only concern was for the nation to get past the Watergate scandal. "The only way to clear the desk in the Oval Office was to get Mr. Nixon's problems off my agenda and get my total attention on the problems of the country," he later said. With that stroke of the pen, Ford's honeymoon with the American public came to a screeching halt and, many say, any hopes he had for victory in 1976 were squashed.

Ford lost the election to Jimmy Carter by just 1.6 million votes out of more than 81 million cast. In a race that close, it's impossible to say with assurance what precisely did him in. Was it the pardon or his debate gaffes, in which he awkwardly attempted to make the case that Poland was not under Soviet domination? Did he pay a price for choosing Bob Dole as a running mate or for the state of the economy? Given all the things aligned against him, it seems pretty remarkable that he came so close to winning.

Ironically, the pardon - widely reviled at the time - is what led the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum to give Ford its "Profile in Courage" award last month. Caroline Kennedy, in presenting the award, said that in pardoning Nixon, Ford "placed his love of country ahead of his own political future." Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), a leading critic at the time of the Nixon pardon, acknowledged, "Time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we see that President Ford was right. His courage and dedication to our country made it possible for us to begin the process of healing and put the tragedy of Watergate behind us." That was Ford's argument in 1974. It took 27 years for some to come around to that point of view.

Question: In your Jan. 20 column, you said the following about Nelson Rockefeller's resignation as New York governor in 1973: "But any aspirations for the '76 nomination came to an end when President Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford took his place. On Aug. 20, 1974, two weeks into the job, President Ford named Rockefeller as his vice president."

Do you think Rockefeller's acceptance of Ford's offer was done with an eye to again seeking the top job? Or was it already a foregone conclusion that Ford would be a candidate in 1976? When did Ford decide, and when did he announce his candidacy? Why wasn't Rocky nominated by the party for vice president in 1976? Was Ford tired and/or wary of him? And lastly, given that the '76 election was so close, do you think keeping Rocky on the ticket would have meant a Ford victory that year?
– Colin Alberts, Arlington, Va.

Conservatives would not accept Rocky as Ford's running mate in '76. (Collection of Ken Rudin)

Answer: I'll try and tackle the questions one at a time.

1. Nixon's resignation and Ford's ascension to the presidency are probably what ended any White House ambitions Rockefeller held. Having made varying degrees of running for the GOP nomination in 1960, '64, and '68, Rocky left the New York governorship in late 1973 to plot out a final presidential bid. Nixon, after all, would have been a lame duck in 1976, and the job would have been open. But the math was changed once Ford found himself thrust into the presidency, and Rockefeller had to go from ambitious to pragmatic. Ford officially announced his candidacy on July 8, 1975, but it was clear for some time that he was going to run.

2. The enmity conservatives felt for Rockefeller had its roots during Rocky's quasi-run against Richard Nixon for the 1960 nomination. But it was in 1964, when Rockefeller clashed with conservative hero Barry Goldwater for the Republican nod, that the split was more pronounced. Rockefeller attacked GOP "extremists" at that summer's convention in San Francisco and refused to campaign on Goldwater's behalf in the fall. When Ford tapped Rockefeller as his vice president in 1974, Goldwater said he would go along with the pick but added he didn't want to see Rocky on the ticket in 1976. As it turned out, Goldwater had nothing to worry about. The less-than-stellar stewardship of Ford's campaign, plus the pressure of Ronald Reagan's insurgency from the right, increased the call by conservatives for the president to dump Rockefeller. Whether he jumped or was pushed, Rockefeller announced in a November 1975 letter to the president that he did not wish to be considered as the party's vice presidential nominee in 1976.

3. Given the Reagan challenge and Ford's suspect credentials with the party's right-wing, there is a general feeling that Rockefeller on the 1976 ticket would have hurt more than help. Under those circumstances, I'm not convinced that Ford would have defeated Reagan for the nomination. But even if he had, the result would have been wide-scale desertion by conservatives in November, either to a third-party candidate or, more probably, to stay at home. Ford's offer to Bob Dole at the 1976 convention to join the ticket was clearly an olive branch to Reagan conservatives. In retrospect, neither Rockefeller nor Dole was the right choice for the ticket that year.

Question: In a recent column, you made a comment about the "Libertarian candidate" getting one electoral vote in the 1972 presidential election. My memory could be wrong, but wasn't it former Congressman Pete McCloskey who got that vote?
– Charles Phillips
McCloskey's apex was 20% against Nixon in the 1972 N.H. primary. (Collection of Ken Rudin)

Answer: No. The Libertarian who received the electoral vote in 1972 was John Hospers. He got the vote of Roger MacBride, a "faithless" Nixon elector from Virginia, who himself became the Libertarian presidential nominee four years later. McCloskey was an anti-Vietnam Republican congressman from California who challenged Nixon's renomination in the 1972 primaries. McCloskey was little more than an asterisk during the 1972 campaign, but he did manage to get one vote at the GOP convention that summer, that from a New Mexico delegate named Tom Mayer.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: junkie@washingtonpost.com

Ken Rudin, political editor at National Public Radio, is also the creator of washingtonpost.com's ScuttleButton contest.

© Copyright 2001 Ken Rudin


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