President Gerald Ford had barely been in office for a month when he made the most consequential decision of his short presidency: To pardon Richard M. Nixon.
It was an act from which Ford never recovered — and newly relevant as recent revelations about President Trump have renewed interest in the presidential pardon.
Ford, Nixon’s vice president, assumed the presidency on Aug. 9, 1974, soon after Nixon resigned in disgrace over Watergate. But the weight of the scandal remained a burden on the White House — and the country.
The Watergate scandals had been dragging on since June of 1972, when The Washington Post famously reported on a suspicious break-in at the office of the Democratic National Committee. It had completely consumed Washington, and Ford felt that the country could not move forward without first putting the scandal behind it.
For days, Ford deliberated in secret with his top aides about whether to pardon his predecessor.
On Sept. 8, 1974, Ford addressed the nation from the Oval Office. His expression was somber, his voice grave.
“Theirs is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part,” the 38th president said of the Nixons. “It could go on, and on, and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that. And if I can, I must.”
In the nearly 10-minute address, Ford laid out his reasoning for issuing the pardon for Nixon’s involvement in Watergate. In addition to believing that Nixon and his family “have suffered enough and will continue to suffer, no matter what I do,” Ford told the nation he was primarily concerned about the effect such a prolonged legal process would have on the country.
“My conscience tells me clearly and certainly that I cannot prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed,” he said. “My conscience tells me that only I, as president, have the constitutional power to firmly shut and seal this book. My conscience tells me it is my duty, not merely to proclaim domestic tranquility but to use every means that I have to insure it.”
An explosive public and political reaction
Ford’s pardon was front-page news. “Ford Pardons Nixon, Who Regrets ‘My Mistakes’,” blared the New York Times the next day in a somewhat arch headline.
“In accepting this pardon, I hope that his compassionate act will contribute to lifting the burden of Watergate from our country,” Nixon responded in a statement from San Clemente, Calif.
Despite Ford’s claim that he intended what was best for the country, the move provoked an explosive public and political reaction.
“Reaction to the pardon was sharply divided, but not entirely along party lines,” the New York Times reported the next day. “Most Democrats who commented voiced varying degrees of disapproval and dismay, while most Republican comment backed President Ford. However, Sens. Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts and Jacob K. Javits of New York disagreed with the action.”
“At the White House, switchboard operators said, ‘Angry calls, heavy and constant,’ began jamming their boards soon after Mr. Ford’s announcement,” the Times wrote.
“The political fallout was far more serious than I contemplated,” Ford told CBS News in a 1984 interview.
“Ford’s Pardon Still Controversial,” declared CBS — in 2006.
What Trump could learn from Ford
Presidential pardons, or at least the possibility of them, are back in the news: This week, The Post’s Ashley Parker reported that President Trump “has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe” as Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation hangs over his administration like a specter.
Whether Trump could actually pardon himself remains uncertain. It would certainly be an unprecedented feat.
But if the response to Ford’s pardon of Nixon is any historical guide, a self-pardon by Trump would certainly not sweep the Russia controversy under the rug, nor would it stymie any continued outrage.
After Ford’s stunning announcement, “There was an aroma of a deal: that Nixon would resign with the guarantee that he would get a pardon and Ford would get the presidency,” Bob Woodward recalled years after the fact.
The well-documented controversy surrounding actions by Nixon’s chief of staff, Alexander Haig, cast further suspicion on Ford. As the Times wrote after Ford’s death in 2006:
“The pardon drama had begun six weeks earlier, with a visit to then-Vice President Ford from Alexander M. Haig, Nixon’s chief of staff.
“Mr. Haig told Mr. Ford that White House tapes would soon prove Nixon’s role in the Watergate coverup and outlined several possibilities for Nixon’s departure. He handed Mr. Ford two pieces of paper: a description of the presidential power to pardon and a blank pardon form.
“Mr. Ford later said he had given no definitive answer. But when he described the meeting to his aides, they were alarmed at the implication: that Nixon, through Mr. Haig, might be offering Mr. Ford the presidency in return for a pardon.”
Ford and Haig always denied that the pardon was a quid-pro-quo for the presidency. Still, the papers have long cast a shadow over this chapter in American history.
There were almost immediate repercussions for Ford. His presidential approval ratings took a dive. His press secretary, Jerald F. terHorst, resigned in protest. “As your spokesman, I do not know how I could credibly defend that action,” he wrote in his infamous resignation letter.
The pardon may have also doomed Ford’s chances of reelection in 1976.
“It probably did. It was a close election, as you know … There is a group of bitter people who never forgave me and probably voted against me, and the net result is that they probably helped that I didn’t win,” Ford told The Post in 2004.
Still, Ford maintained that his decision stemmed from a desire to shield the country from further harm. The following month, Ford testified before Congress about the pardon, in part to have his reasoning on the record. He was the first sitting president to deliver sworn congressional testimony. In it, he sought to lay out the events that transpired leading to the pardon.
“I want very much to have those facts and circumstances known. The American people want to know them. And members of the Congress want to know them,” his testimony began before establishing the chronology of events that led to his decision.
Securing his place in history
Ford essentially wrote the first line of his obituary the day he issued Nixon’s pardon.
“Former President Gerald R. Ford, who gently led the United States out of the tumultuous Watergate era but who lost his own bid for election after pardoning President Richard M. Nixon, died at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif.,” the New York Times wrote the day after his death on Dec. 26, 2006.
“Ford’s overriding priority was ending the constitutional and political crisis known as Watergate,” declared his obituary in The Washington Post.
But Ford seemed to have come to terms with his historic decision, as The Washington Post obituary noted:
“Ford said he believed that his signal achievement was healing the national divisiveness caused by the ‘poisonous wounds of Watergate,’ as he put it in his inaugural speech. “There is no question that this is the thing I contributed,” Ford said.
The passing of time, however, has softened the perspective on Ford’s decision.
By 2014, Bob Woodward, who had spoken at length with Ford about the pardon, was convinced that “this was an act of courage, rather than the final corruption of Watergate.”