Ford Pardons Nixon - History

Ford Pardons Nixon - History

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President Gerald Ford concluded that to put Watergate behind the nation he should issue a pardon to President Nixon for any actions he took regarding Watergate and surrounding issues. He did so on September 8, 1974. His decision was very controversial, and many think it was the cause for his loss to President Carter in 1976..

When President Nixon resigned the open question was what would happen with the case against him now that he was no longer President. The aides to Leon Jaworski, the special prosecutor, had written a memo examining the pro and cons of indicting Nixon. Jaworski was convinced the Nixon was guilty of in a conspiracy to obstruct justice. The argument to charge Nixon was strong- the need to ensure that everyone was equal under the law. If Nixon was guilty, he needed to be indicted like anyone else.

President Ford was sympathetic to Nixon. He liked him personally. He understood that his health both physical and mental was slipping at the time. He also felt that Nixon was arrested an put on trial he it would keep all the wounds of Watergate open. The country would be obsessed with the story and would not be able to move on. Ford concluded that the only solution was to issue Nixon an unconditional pardon.

On September 8, 1974, Ford addressed the nation and explained that it was time of the country to move on. He issued Nixon and complete pardon. The decision was very unpopular at the time. Many believe that resulted in his loss in the 1976 Presidential election. Historians think in retrospect it was the correct decision and did let the country move forward.

President Ford's Address

Ladies and gentlemen:

I have come to a decision which I felt I should tell you and all of my fellow American citizens, as soon as I was certain in my own mind and in my own conscience that it is the right thing to do.

I have learned already in this office that the difficult decisions always come to this desk. I must admit that many of them do not look at all the same as the hypothetical questions that I have answered freely and perhaps too fast on previous occasions.

My customary policy is to try and get all the facts and to consider the opinions of my countrymen and to take counsel with my most valued friends. But these seldom agree, and in the end, the decision is mine. To procrastinate, to agonize, and to wait for a more favorable turn of events that may never come 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 a President to follow.

I have promised to uphold the Constitution, to do what is right as God gives me to see the right, and to do the very best that I can for America.

I have asked your help and your prayers, not only when I became President but many times since. The Constitution is the supreme law of our land and it governs our actions as citizens. Only the laws of God, which govern our consciences, are superior to it.

As we are a nation under God, so I am sworn to uphold our laws with the help of God. And I have sought such guidance and searched my own conscience with special diligence to determine the right thing for me to do with respect to my predecessor in this place, Richard Nixon, and his loyal wife and family.

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 the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must.

There are no historic or legal precedents to which I can turn in this matter, none that precisely fit the circumstances of a private citizen who has resigned the Presidency of the United States. But it is common knowledge that serious allegations and accusations hang like a sword over our former President's 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.

After years of bitter controversy and divisive national debate, I have been advised, and I am compelled to conclude 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.

I deeply believe in equal justice for all Americans, whatever their station or former station. The law, whether human or divine, is no respecter of persons; but the law is a respecter of reality.

The facts, as I see them, are that a former President of the United States, instead of enjoying equal treatment with any other citizen accused of violating the law, would be cruelly and excessively penalized either in preserving the presumption of his innocence or in obtaining a speedy determination of his guilt in order to repay a legal debt to society.

During this long period of delay and potential litigation, ugly passions would again be aroused. And 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.

In the end, the courts might well hold that Richard Nixon had been denied due process, and the verdict of history would even more be inconclusive with respect to those charges arising out of the period of his Presidency, of which I am presently aware.

But it is not the ultimate fate of Richard Nixon that most concerns me, though surely it deeply troubles every decent and every compassionate person. My concern is the immediate future of this great country.

In this, I dare not depend upon my personal sympathy as a long-time friend of the former President, nor my professional judgment as a lawyer, and I do not.

As President, my primary concern must always be the greatest good of all the people of the United States whose servant I am. As a man, my first consideration is to be true to my own convictions and my own conscience.

My conscience tells me clearly and certainly that I cannot prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed. 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 tranquillity but to use every means that I have to insure it.

I do believe that the buck stops here, that I cannot rely upon public opinion polls to tell me what is right.

I do believe that right makes might and that if I am wrong, 10 angels swearing I was right would make no difference.

I do believe, with all my heart and mind and spirit, that I, not as President but as a humble servant of God, will receive justice without mercy if I fail to show mercy.

Finally, 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 this point, the President began reading from the proclamation granting the pardon.]

"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 may have committed or taken part in during the period from July (January) 20, 1969 through August 9, 1974."

[The President signed the proclamation and then resumed reading.]

"In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand this eighth day of September, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and seventy-four, and of the Independence of the United States of America the one hundred and ninety-ninth."

The Pardon

1 - Proclamation 4311—Granting Pardon to Richard Nixon
September 8, 1974

By the President of the United States of America
A Proclamation
Richard Nixon became the thirty-seventh President of the United States on January 20, 1969 and was reelected in 1972 for a second term by the electors of forty-nine of the fifty states. His term in office continued until his resignation on August 9, 1974.

Pursuant to resolutions of the House of Representatives, its Committee on the Judiciary conducted an inquiry and investigation on the impeachment of the President extending over more than eight months. The hearings of the Committee and its deliberations, which received wide national publicity over television, radio, and in printed media, resulted in votes adverse to Richard Nixon on recommended Articles of Impeachment.

As a result of certain acts or omissions occurring before his resignation from the Office of President, Richard Nixon has become liable to possible indictment and trial for offenses against the United States. Whether or not he shall be so prosecuted depends on findings of the appropriate grand jury and on the discretion of the authorized prosecutor. Should an indictment ensue, the accused shall then be entitled to a fair trial by an impartial jury, as guaranteed to every individual by the Constitution.

It is believed that a trial of Richard Nixon, if it became necessary, could not fairly begin until a year or more has elapsed. In the meantime, the tranquility to which this nation has been restored by the events of recent weeks could be irreparably lost by the prospects of bringing to trial a former President of the United States. The prospects of such trial will cause prolonged and divisive debate over the propriety of exposing to further punishment and degradation a man who has already paid the unprecedented penalty of relinquishing the highest elective office of the United States.

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 may have committed or taken part in during the period from January 20, 1969 through August 9, 1974.

In Witness Whereof, I have hereunto set my hand this eighth day of September, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and seventy-four, and of the Independence of the United States of America the one hundred and ninety-ninth.

Jerald terHorst was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on July 11, 1922. The son of Dutch immigrants, he did not speak English until he was 5 years old. He dropped out of high school at age 15 to work on an uncle's farm but returned to school when his high school principal successfully persuaded him to graduate.

He went to Michigan State University on an agriculture scholarship and wrote for the school newspaper. His education was interrupted yet again when World War II broke out he served in the United States Marine Corps from 1943 to 1946 in the Pacific theater. He finally finished his college education at the University of Michigan in 1946.

In the midst of the war, in 1945, he married Louise Roth, whom he had met at Michigan State University. She wrote for The Grand Rapids Herald he wrote for The Grand Rapids Press, the Herald's rival, after graduation until 1951. [2] He returned to active duty with the Marine Corps from 1951 until 1952 before going to write for The Detroit News, first in its Lansing bureau, then in the city room in Detroit.

In 1958 he was appointed as a correspondent in Washington, D.C. (1958–1960), eventually serving as bureau chief (1961–1974). On November 22, 1963, terHorst was in Dallas, Texas, riding in the motorcade during President John F. Kennedy's assassination. [3]

White House Press Secretary Edit

When he was appointed in August 1974 to serve as Ford's White House Press Secretary, he was a veteran journalist, respected member of the White House press corps, and an "old friend" of Gerald Ford's, whom he had known since Ford's first Congressional race in 1948 in fact, he was writing President Ford's biography at the time. The Detroit News allowed him to take a leave of absence to serve as Press Secretary.

He was applauded for "restoring openness and honesty to the White House" at a time when morale was low, after the Watergate scandal and the Nixon administration's deliberate misrepresentations. [2]

Resignation Edit

However, his stint as press secretary lasted only a month, from August 9 to September 8, 1974. He resigned in protest in the wake of President Ford's announcement that he would pardon former president Richard Nixon for any possible crimes connected with the Watergate scandal, Ford saying—as paraphrased by The New York Times [2] —that "to pursue criminal charges against the former president would be detrimental to the interests of the country". [2] At the time, the story that circulated was that terHorst had resigned because he had been blindsided by Ford's decision and because he had consistently denied to reporters in his daily press briefings that Ford had any intent of pardoning Nixon. Once the pardon was issued, the story went, terHorst felt that any credibility that he had earned with reporters had been undermined. Therefore, he handed in his resignation even before Ford went on the air. [4]

TerHorst found the pardon especially unconscionable in light of Ford's refusal to pardon those who evaded the draft during the Vietnam War. [5] His successor as Press Secretary was NBC reporter Ron Nessen, who served until the end of the Ford Administration.

Post-White House career Edit

Shortly after his resignation, his book on President Ford, Gerald Ford and the Future of the Presidency, was published (with an epilogue about the circumstances leading up to terHorst's resignation). He was the first-ever recipient in 1975 of the Conscience-in-Media Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He returned to The Detroit News as a national affairs columnist until 1981, when he joined the Ford Motor Company as their Washington, D.C. director of public affairs. He and Ralph D. Albertazzie, the pilot of Air Force One during the Nixon administration, co-authored The Flying White House: The Story of Air Force One (1979), a history of Air Force One—all seven aircraft—and presidential air travel in general. Albertazzie's Boeing 707, known as the "Spirit of '76," was the first jet to serve as the official Air Force One. [6]

On November 12, 1999, terHorst appeared on a C-SPAN panel regarding Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon. The program was chaired by Professor Ken Gormley of Duquesne University, and hosted at Duquesne in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In the panel discussion, terHorst discussed why he was chosen by Ford, and his decision to resign as Ford's press secretary after the Nixon pardon. Other panelists included Robert Hartmann, White House Counsel during the Ford administration Benton Becker, Special Counsel to Ford who negotiated the wording and acceptance of Nixon's pardon and Herbert Miller, Nixon's personal attorney during the conclusion of the Watergate scandal. Ron Ziegler, Nixon's own press secretary, was scheduled to appear via telephone hookup, but failed to connect Ford's third son, Steven Ford, joined the panel briefly to participate in its conclusion. This was re-broadcast January 6, 2007, as a segment of Contemporary History on C-SPAN 3 as part of their public affairs programming in the wake of Ford's death. [7]

In the end, terHorst agreed with the rest of the panel's assessment that the Nixon pardon was granted to end the drain on White House resources (rather than as any part of a covert deal Nixon made with Ford before resigning). He pointed out, however, that the Vietnam War was also a "searing ordeal" and was a significant drain on the administration at the time, yet Ford did not act to heal that wound with the haste Ford evinced in moving the Nixon matter off the national agenda.

Although other panelists expressed retroactive support for the pardon, terHorst disagreed: "I would still say I am exactly where I was 25 years ago, that it set up a double standard of justice" in which Nixon was granted highly favorable treatment in comparison to his co-conspirators or the men who had evaded the Vietnam War draft.

TerHorst was married to Louise Roth terHorst for 64 years, from 1945 until her death in 2009. terHorst died at age 87 of congestive heart failure in his apartment in Asheville, North Carolina, on March 31, 2010. He was survived by his four children, Peter, Karen, Margaret and Martha, and by eight grandchildren. [2]

Why Pardoning Nixon Wasn't Good for America

This excerpt was adapted from the foreword to Smoking Gun, The Nation on Watergate, 1952 – 2010 (eBookNation, August 4, 2014), written by former US Representative Elizabeth Holtzman. The former Congresswoman served on the House Judiciary Committee and voted to impeach Nixon you can download the new e-book , a unique real-time history from the pages of The Nation magazine on the rise and fall of Richard Nixon -- and the consequences for American democracy -- to read instantly on your tablet, e-reader, smartphone or computer. It is also available as a paperback (coming October 2014).

If Watergate is a story of accountability, President Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon is a story of presidential immunity. Here The Nation was especially spot-on, comprehending the sinister significance of the pardon right from the start.

Issued before any prosecution of Nixon had commenced, and without any acknowledgment of guilt on Nixon’s part, Ford’s pardon created a dual system of justice—one for ordinary Americans and another for the President. (Ford’s excuse that Nixon had “suffered enough” could have been applied, of course, to any person whose criminal activities had been exposed.) Unlike its persistence in tackling Watergate, Congress backed away from any serious investigation of the pardon. We will thus probably never know whether Nixon and his lieutenant Ford made a secret deal over the pardon—-in which Nixon would resign promptly and Ford would pardon him, not only shielding the President from prosecution, but limiting the Republican Party’s electoral losses at the polls in November.

Sadly, Watergate did not deter other Presidents from abusing their power. From Ronald Reagan and the Iran/Contra scandal to the present, Presidents have used the mantra of national security to ignore the Constitution. Worse, Ford’s pardon has grown into a principle of impunity for Presidents. It is not simply that Presidents are now viewed as safe from prosecution they cannot even be investigated. No investigation has examined the presidential deceptions that drove us into the Iraq War, or the presidential authorizations of warrantless wiretapping in violation of law, or the possible criminal liability of former President George W. Bush and other top administration officials for violating laws on torture. Neither Congress nor the courts have taken the Watergate example to heart and stood firmly against presidential crimes or serious misconduct. Instead of remembering that Nixon cynically invoked “national security” to conceal ordinary crimes having nothing to do with the country’s welfare, they cower at the term, allowing Presidents to broaden their powers enormously.

Lack of government accountability runs directly contrary to the Constitution. The framers understood the threat that a strong executive would pose to our democracy they knew because they had themselves overthrown a king and were careful students of history. To preserve our democracy, we need to rediscover the meaning of presidential accountability. One good way to start is to understand what went right—and wrong—in Watergate. For that effort, this volume of The Nation’s coverage of the subject is a useful resource.

Broadcast of hope

Ford outlined the multiple reasons behind his decision in an address before the nation, which was widely broadcast on TV. In the address, Ford said he delivered the pardon in the hopes of moving the country forward. Because of the prominence the presidency holds, Ford in his address said he did not believe Nixon would have been privy to a fair and just trial. “The facts, as I see them, are that a former president of the United States … would be cruelly and excessively penalized,” said Ford.

President Ford pardons Nixon, Sept. 8, 1974

On this day in 1974, President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, his predecessor, for any crimes he may have committed while in office as the Watergate scandal unfolded.

In a Sunday afternoon televised speech from the Oval Office, Ford argued that the pardon served the country’s best interests. He said Nixon’s circumstances — resigning when his political support on Capitol Hill collapsed — reflected “a tragedy in which we all have played a part. 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.”

Ford also said: “My customary policy is to try and get all the facts and to consider the opinions of my countrymen and to take counsel with my most valued friends. But these seldom agree, and in the end, the decision is mine. To procrastinate, to agonize, and to wait for a more favorable turn of events that may never come 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 a president to follow.”

In accepting the pardon, Nixon said, “That the way I tried to deal with Watergate was the wrong way is a burden I shall bear for every day of the life that is left to me.”

In issuing the pardon, Ford saw his poll numbers — which had soared when Nixon resigned — plummet. Jerald terHorst, his newly named press secretary, quit.

Trump Has No Fear: ‘Makes Nixon Look Like a Cream Puff’

In an unprecedented step, Ford, a former House minority leader, subsequently testified before the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee. He said there was no quid-pro-quo involved in Nixon’s Aug. 9 resignation. (On that date, after being sworn into office, Ford had said, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”)

Among some on the political right, the Watergate drama evoked sympathy for Nixon, the sole president ever to resign. They tended to see Nixon as a victim of political infighting in Washington and regarded much of Nixon's behavior to be no worse than that of his predecessors.

Over time, Ford’s pardon resulted in a further polarization of a nation already traumatized by the Watergate scandal.

After being defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter in November 1976 and leaving office in January 1977, Ford continued to carry in his wallet a copy of Burdick v. United States, a 1915 U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the court had ruled that a pardon reflected a presumption of guilt and that the acceptance of a pardon was tantamount to a confession.

In 2001, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation awarded its Profile in Courage Award to Ford, a Michigan Republican. In presenting the award, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) noted that while he had opposed the Nixon pardon at the time, history had proved Ford had made the correct decision.

One doesn't need to speculate, he specifically stated the reason why in Proclamation 4311:

It is believed that a trial of Richard Nixon, if it became necessary, could not fairly begin until a year or more has elapsed. In the meantime, the tranquility to which this nation has been restored by the events of recent weeks could be irreparably lost by the prospects of bringing to trial a former President of the United States. The prospects of such trial will cause prolonged and divisive debate over the propriety of exposing to further punishment and degradation a man who has already paid the unprecedented penalty of relinquishing the highest elective office of the United States.

Conrad Black describes the circumstances in Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full as follows:

The inevitable swarms of conspiracy theorists claim that [Alexander] Haig brokered a pardon for Nixon from Ford. Both Haig and Ford deny this and have done so in identical and strenuous terms for over thirty years at the time of writing . Further, Nixon considered himself a wronged and tormented man he was not seeking anything that would imply admission that he had done anything that justified the present legal condition .

At Ford's first presidential press conference, on August 28 [1974], there was a question about a possible pardon of Nixon, which Ford parried. Hugh Scott and [Nelson] Rockefeller had both said publicly that Nixon had endured enough and should not be pursued further. Ford said that he agreed with Scott and Rockefeller, but that there was no judicial process under way and he thought it inappropriate to comment further. The press took this to mean that Ford would pardon Nixon after a trial but not before .

In Washington, Haig had spoken to Nixon and been bombarded with calls from his daughters and sons-in-law expressing concern about Nixon's health and morale. David Eisenhower called President Ford on August 28 and made the same point with him. [Leon] Jaworski advised Ford that he was not planning to ask for an early indictment against Nixon, but a grand jury might prefer one, and that it would take at least nine months to get a trial started. No one seriously thought it would be possible to empanel an impartial jury anywhere in the United States in such a case, and the timetable Jarkowski outlined would have the trial of the former president rolling into and trough the election year of 1976.

Ford told his counsel, Philip Buchen, to tell Nixon's new lawyer . that he was considering a pardon, but that he wanted a statement from Nixon that would be an act of contrition . There were four drafts, mainly composed by Nixon, who refused to acknowledge any guilt, but was prepared to express some remorse .

[Benton] Becker finally requested to see Nixon, so he could report to Ford on his condition. He found the ex-president shockingly diminished in the month since he had left Washington. He was jowly, pallid, almost shrunken, and had a limp handshake and a distracted manner. Becker reported to Ford that Nixon was severely depressed and he doubted if he would life more than another couple of months.

On Sunday, September 8, Ford went on television on radio, explained that he wished to put Watergate behind the country and the terrible divisions it had created, and read his proclamation of a "full, free, and absolute" pardon for Nixon.


Following the release of the "smoking gun" tape on August 5, 1974, Nixon's position had become untenable. In his 1979 autobiography, A Time to Heal, Ford wrote about a meeting he had with White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig before Nixon's resignation. Haig was explaining what he and Nixon's staff thought were Nixon's only options. He could try to ride out the impeachment and fight against conviction in the Senate all the way, or he could resign. His options for resigning were to delay his resignation until further along in the impeachment process to try to settle for a censure vote in Congress or to pardon himself and then resign. Haig told Ford that some of Nixon's staff suggested that Nixon could agree to resign in return for an agreement that Ford would pardon him. On this subject, Ford wrote:

Haig emphasized that these weren't his suggestions. He didn't identify the staff members and he made it very clear that he wasn't recommending any one option over another. What he wanted to know was whether or not my overall assessment of the situation agreed with his. [emphasis in original] Next he asked if I had any suggestions as to courses of actions for the President. I didn't think it would be proper for me to make any recommendations at all, and I told him so. [6]

In a Washington Post story published the night Ford died, journalist Bob Woodward said that Ford once told Woodward he decided to pardon Nixon for other reasons, primarily the friendship that Ford and Nixon shared. [7]

Following Nixon's resignation on August 9, 1974, the Nixons flew to their home La Casa Pacifica in San Clemente, California. [8] According to his biographer, Jonathan Aitken, after his resignation, "Nixon was a soul in torment." [9] Congress had funded Nixon's transition costs, including some salary expenses but reduced the appropriation from $850,000 to $200,000. With some of his staff still with him, Nixon was at his desk by 7 a.m. with little to do. [9] His former press secretary, Ron Ziegler, sat with him alone for hours each day. [10]

Nixon's resignation had not put an end to the desire among many to see him punished. With his resignation, Congress dropped its impeachment proceedings against him but criminal prosecution was still a possibility both on the federal and state level. [11]

The Ford White House considered a pardon of Nixon, but it would be unpopular in the country. Nixon, contacted by Ford emissaries, was initially reluctant to accept the pardon but then agreed to do so. Ford, however, insisted on a statement of contrition Nixon felt he had not committed any crimes and should not have to issue such a document. Ford eventually agreed, and on September 8, 1974, he granted Nixon a "full, free, and absolute pardon" that ended any possibility of an indictment. Nixon then released a statement:

I 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. No words can describe the depth of my regret and pain at the anguish my mistakes over Watergate have caused the nation and the presidency, a nation I so deeply love, and an institution I so greatly respect. [12] [13] [14]

The Nixon pardon was controversial. Critics derided the move and claimed a "corrupt bargain" had been struck between the men: that Ford's pardon was granted in exchange for Nixon's resignation, elevating Ford to the presidency. Ford's first press secretary and close friend Jerald terHorst resigned his post in protest after the pardon.

The Nixon pardon was a pivotal moment in the Ford presidency. Historians believe that the controversy was one of the major reasons that Ford lost the election in 1976, and Ford agreed with that observation. [7] In an editorial at the time, The New York Times stated that the Nixon pardon was a "profoundly unwise, divisive, and unjust act" that in a stroke had destroyed the new president's "credibility as a man of judgment, candor, and competence". Allegations of a secret deal made with Ford, promising a pardon in return for Nixon's resignation, led Ford to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on October 17, 1974. [15] [16] He was the first sitting president to testify before the House of Representatives since Abraham Lincoln. [17] [18] Ford's approval rating dropped from 71% to 50% following the pardon. [19]

In October 1974, Nixon fell ill with phlebitis. Told by his doctors that he could either be operated on or die, a reluctant Nixon chose surgery, and Ford visited him in the hospital. Nixon was under subpoena for the trial of three of his former aides (John Dean, H. R. Haldeman, and John Ehrlichman) and The Washington Post, disbelieving his illness, printed a cartoon showing Nixon with a cast on the "wrong foot". Judge John Sirica excused Nixon's presence despite the defendants' objections. [20] Congress instructed Ford to retain Nixon's presidential papers, which began a three-decade legal battle over the documents that was eventually won by the former president and his estate. [21] Nixon was in the hospital when the 1974 midterm elections were held, and Watergate and the pardon were contributing factors to the Republican loss of 43 seats in the House and three in the Senate. [22] Two years later, lingering public resentment over the pardon was a factor in Ford's narrow loss to Democratic Party nominee Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election. [23]

1974: U.S. President Ford Pardons his Predecessor Nixon

That happened less than a month after Nixon had resigned the Presidency due to the Watergate scandal.

Ford was Nixon’s successor because he was his Vice President (and could succeed him).

Negative reactions were expected because many thought that Nixon’s resignation wasn’t enough.

But President Gerald Ford publicly pardoned Nixon in the White House on this day.

The pardon was “full, free and absolute”, and after that it wasn’t possible to accuse Nixon for to the Watergate scandal.

Nixon didn’t want to publicly repent because he claimed he had not committed any crime.

After Ford had pardoned him, Nixon said he regretted he hadn’t reacted decisively to the Watergate scandal.

Gerald Ford and the Perversion of Presidential Pardons

In pardoning Nixon, the 38th president opened the floodgates to boundless executive power.

In his final weeks in office, President Donald Trump is outraging the media and many critics with deluges of dubious pardons. Last Tuesday was “No Corrupt Congressman or Iraqi Child Killer Left Behind Day.” On Wednesday, he pardoned his 2016 campaign chief, Roger Stone, Jared Kushner’s father (convicted of tax fraud), and dozens of others. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) responded by calling to strip the pardon power from the Constitution: “Once one party allows the pardon power to become a tool of criminal enterprise , its danger to democracy outweighs its utility as an instrument of justice.”

But the potential damage from Trump’s pardons thus far is small potatoes compared to the most damaging pardon in U.S. history issued by one of the Washington establishment’s favorite presidents, Gerald Ford. On September 8, 1974, Ford issued a pardon of former president Richard Nixon that was so sweeping that it practically condemned future generations of Americans to being governed by lawless presidents.

Nixon had resigned the previous month after the House Judiciary Committee had voted to impeach him. The first article of the bill of impeachment focused on Nixon’s involvement in the coverup of the Watergate burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters by agents of his Committee to Re-Elect the President.

Ford, i n his televised speech to the nation on the pardon on September 8, 1974, repeatedly stressed his devotion to the Constitution and to “equal justice for all Americans.” Ford lamented that Nixon might have difficulty to “obtain a fair trial by jury in any jurisdiction” and that he “would be cruelly and excessively penalized either in preserving the presumption of his innocence or in obtaining a speedy determination of his guilt in order to repay a legal debt to society.” In lieu of offering any evidence that Nixon could not get a fair trial, Ford insisted that Nixon’s suffering and fate “deeply troubles every decent and every compassionate person.” Perhaps most bizarrely, Ford declared that, if Nixon were put on trial, “the credibility of our free institutions of government would again be challenged at home and abroad.” Perhaps Ford, a career politician, confused placing “free institutions” with “rulers on a pedestal.”

Many people assumed that President Ford pardoned Nixon only for Watergate. In reality, Ford’s pardon was so broad — forgiving Nixon for any and every possible crime he may have committed — that it would have exempted Nixon even from charges of genocide:

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 may have committed or taken part in during the period from January 20, 1969, through August 9, 1974.

Ford’s pardon closed the book on holding Nixon culpable for his crimes against the Constitution, Americans, and millions of other people around the world. Ford justified his pardon by claiming that criminally prosecuting Nixon would banish “the tranquility to which this nation has been restored by the events of recent weeks.”

But Ford’s action made it easier for subsequent presidents to disturb “tranquility” and practically everything else. If Nixon had been publicly tried and a full accounting of his abuses made to the American public, it may have been more difficult for subsequent presidents to cover up their crimes. Politicians remembering Nixon’s punishment and humiliation might have been slower to lie the nation into unnecessary foreign wars. If Ford was determined to pardon the man who appointed him Vice President, he should have had the decency to wait until Americans could see the evidence of the abuses committed during Nixon’s reign. As liberal journalist Matthew Yglesias observed in 2006, Ford’s blanket pardon helped obscure the fact that Nixon “had been spear-heading a broad-based criminal conspiracy aimed at suppressing the anti-war movement and other civil society manifestations of opposition to Nixon’s policies.”

Ford’s pardon proclaimed a new doctrine in American law and politics — that one president can absolve another president for anything and everything. No wonder that Nixon told interviewer David Frost a few years later that “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” Frost, somewhat dumbfounded, replied, “By definition?” Nixon answered, “Exactly. Exactly.”

Ford’s expansive use of the pardon helped pave the way for George H.W. Bush’s Iran-Contra pardons which largely demolished the investigation of Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh. On Christmas Eve 1992, Bush pardoned six Reagan administration officials for their roles in Iran Contra , the illegal arms-for-hostage deal that blighted the final years of the Reagan presidency. Former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger was scheduled to go on trial two weeks later on charges of lying to Congress.

Walsh denounced the pardons as part of a “cover-up” and said that they undermined his investigation of possible criminal conduct by Bush himself. Walsh also reported that Bush’s pardons prevented Bush from having to testify in court and face “searching questions” on his own conduct . Bush’s pardons greatly reduced the likelihood that his co-conspirators would ever turn state’s evidence against him . The presidential pardons of Walsh’s targets were approved by Attorney General Bill Barr, who resigned as Trump’s Attorney General effective last week but whose recommendations may have had profound influence on the latest and forthcoming Trump pardons. University of California professor Eric Rauchway declared that Bush’s “pardons did more to enable future criminal presidencies even than Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon.” If Walsh’s investigation had led to Bush’s conviction, the Bush brand name might have been sufficiently damaged that no other Bush could have ascended to the presidency.

President Bill Clinton built on those precedents to issue a deluge of pardons in his final day of office, including for two former cabinet members, his brother Roger, fellow Whitewater operative Susan McDougal (whose silence helped save Clinton), and former congressman Mel Reynolds (convicted of having sex with a 16-year-old campaign volunteer as well as bank fraud and wire fraud). Slate denounced Clinton’s for fugitive billionaire Marc Rich, who had been indicted for tax evasion, wire fraud, racketeering, and trading with the enemy, as “the most unjust presidential pardon in American history.” Rich’s pardon was facilitated by Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder , who slipped the pardon effort past normal Justice Department checks and balances. Rich’s pardon was supported by the chief of the Anti-Defamation League (after Rich pledged to give $100,000 to the organization), the chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Museum , and many other organizations. Responding to the uproar over that pardon, Clinton justified the pardon in a New York Times op-ed in part due to the lobbying of “many present and former high-ranking Israeli officials of both major political parties,” who stressed Rich’s services to the Mossad. Clinton was indignant at suggestions that Rich’s former wife’s $450,000 contribution to the Clinton presidential library had any influence on the pardon. A congressional investigation concluded that Clinton abused his pardon power by offering “it up to wealthy fugitives whose money had already enabled them to permanently escape American justice. Few other abuses could so thoroughly undermine public trust in government.”

Ford’s former chief of staff, Dick Cheney, brought the absolutist spirit of Ford’s pardon of Nixon into the George W. Bush administration. Thirty years after Nixon resigned, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales claimed that the “ commander-in-chief” override entitled the president to violate federal law. That doctrine helped spawn a worldwide torture regime. After the New York Times finally exposed Bush’s National Security Administration illegal wiretapping regime in late 2005, Bush responded the following month by boasting about his “ Terrorist Surveillance Program” in his State of the Union Address and receiving standing ovations from Republicans members of Congress. Bush clearly felt that he was legally untouchable regardless of what he did (though he was smart enough to not brag that he could get away with shooting someone on Fifth Avenue).

President Barack Obama is rarely included in lists of pardon abusers but he and his Attorney General Eric Holder effectively pardoned all the war crimes and other atrocities committed by top Bush administration officials. Obama promised during his 2008 presidential campaign that he would “immediately review” Bush-era torture crimes because “nobody is above the law.” Instead, the Obama administration proffered one excuse after another to suppress the vast majority of torture evidence relying on the “ State Secrets” doctrine and administrative decrees, as well as throttling all torture-related lawsuits. The ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer summarized Obama’s policy: “The greater the abuse , the more important it is that it should remain secret.” Obama and Holder effectively invented a new legal category–“ good faith torture” — and summarily ruled that it applied to all U.S. government officials. Thanks to Obama and Holder’s ”get out of jail free” card, former president George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney could publicly boast in 2010 about having ordered torture .

It is difficult to know what further pardon surprises Trump will spring in his final weeks in office. The New York Times reported earlier this month that Trump has discussed with advisors issuing pardons to his three eldest children and Rudolph Giuliani. Will he take the audacious step of issuing himself a Gerald-Ford-all-inclusive pardon for all he has done since January 20, 2017? That might be another “kraken release” that plays as badly as Sidney Powell’s efforts to overturn the election.

Ford’s blanket pardon of Nixon helped turn America into an Impunity Democracy in which rulers pay no price for their misdeeds. Presidential pardons often preclude truth: the odds of learning the facts about official outrages decline by roughly 98% after the threat of prosecution is removed. While the latest media outrage focuses on who is receiving pardons from Trump, the real danger remains the nearly boundless power of the White House. When presidents are formally permitted to trample the law, they become the most dangerous criminals in the land.

James Bovard is the author of Lost Rights, Attention Deficit Democracy, and Public Policy Hooligan. He is also a USA Today columnist. Follow him on Twitter @JimBovard.

The History of the Pardon Power

Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution states that the President has the authority to “grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” The United States Supreme Court has interpreted this power as “plenary,” meaning that is considerably broad and not generally subject to congressional modification. 1 In both Ex parte Garland (1866) and United States v. Klein (1871), the Court ruled that legislation could not restrict the president’s pardon power. 2

The origins of the pardon power in the United States Constitution can be found in English history, known previously as the “prerogative of mercy.” It first appeared during the reign of King Ine of Wessex in the seventh century. Although abuses of the pardon power increased over time, leading to limitations on it, the pardon power persisted through the American colonial period. Alexander Hamilton introduced the concept of a pardon power at the Constitutional Convention. There was debate about whether Congress should have a role in the pardon power, with the Senate approving presidential pardons. Delegates also debated whether treason should be excluded from pardonable offenses. However, the final result was an expansive power for the president in Article II, the strongest example of constitutional executive unilateralism. 3 The framers of the Constitution deliberately separated the judicial function of government from the pardon power, therefore obviating concern from English jurist William Blackstone that the power of judging and pardoning should not be delegated to the same person or entity. 4 They also reasoned that pardoning subordinates for treason would subject the president to threats of impeachment and removal from office.

George Washington issued the first presidential pardon in 1795 after the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania.

There are many different types of clemency that fall under the president’s power. They include: pardon, amnesty, commutation, and reprieve. A pardon releases a person from punishment and restores all civil liberties. Amnesty is the same as the pardon but is extended to an entire class of individuals. Commutation reduces the sentence imposed by a federal court. A reprieve delays the imposition of a sentence or punishment. 5

While the pardon power is robust, there are three important limitations on it. First, a crime must have been committed for a pardon to be issued. Second, the presidential power is limited to federal crimes. Lastly, the president may not issue pardons in cases of impeachment. Other than these criteria, there are no constitutional restrictions on a president’s pardon power. 6

Presidents throughout American history have exercised their constitutional authority granted by the pardon power. George Washington first exercised the pardon power in 1795 after he issued amnesty to those engaged in Pennsylvania’s Whiskey Rebellion. Thomas Jefferson granted amnesty to any citizen convicted of a crime under the Alien and Sedition Acts. Abraham Lincoln used clemency to encourage desertions from the Confederate Army. In 1868, Andrew Johnson’s pardon of Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy, was perhaps the most controversial pardon to date. 7

In the twentieth century, Warren G. Harding’s commutation of twenty-four political prisoners, including socialist leader Eugene Debs, proved controversial. In 1971, Richard Nixon commuted the sentence of James Hoffa, former president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters who was convicted for pension fund fraud and jury tampering. Of course, Gerald Ford’s 1974 pardon of Richard Nixon was arguably the most famous exercise of executive clemency in American history. After Ford’s pardon of Nixon, his approval rating fell over twenty points in the ensuing days. Many political analysts conclude that Ford never recovered from the pardon, thus severely damaging his chances to win election to the White House in 1976. 8 Ford explained that he granted the pardon as an act of mercy to Nixon and for the broader purpose of restoring domestic tranquility in the nation after Watergate. 9

Andrew Johnson’s pardon of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, was one of the most controversial in American history.

Although some pardons are controversial, executive grants of clemency are not rare in American history. In fact, most clemency cases are “all but anonymous.” 10 According to Department of Justice statistics, the total number of executive clemency actions from 1900 to 2017 is 22,485. In recent decades, the number of issued clemency grants have declined as well as the percentage of granted petitions. 11 From the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s administration (1981) to the conclusion of Barack Obama’s presidency (2017), there have been 3,069 acts of executive clemency. There is also considerable variation amongst presidents. Since the mid-twentieth century, Barack Obama issued the most pardons and commutations (1,927) for two-term presidents. In comparison, George W. Bush issued the fewest number of clemency actions (200) for a two-term president. 12

The Office of the Pardon Attorney at the Department of Justice issues guidelines for the application of clemency, but presidents do not need to follow them. 13 The Pardon Attorney serves in an advisory, not decision making, capacity. Recommendations for pardons are routed through the Deputy Attorney General, who supervises the Pardon Attorney. 14 Final recommendations are made to the Office of White House Counsel, who advises the president on such petitions. 15

As decided in Ex Parte Garland (1866), presidents may issue pardons at any time after the commission of a federal offense, even before federal charges have been filed or a sentence has been imposed. 16 Such was the case when Ford pardoned Nixon. There are other instances of presidents circumventing judicial processes in anticipation of legal action. Abraham Lincoln issued preemptive pardons during the Civil War and so did Jimmy Carter, who pardoned Vietnam draft evaders who had not been charged for their actions.

This photograph shows Gerald Ford departing the office of his speechwriter, Robert Hartmann, immediately before he issued a pardon of Richard Nixon.

On This Day: Ford Pardons Nixon – HISTORY

In a controversial executive action, President Gerald Ford pardons his disgraced predecessor Richard M. Nixon for any crimes he may have committed or participated in while in office. Ford later defended this action before the House Judiciary Committee, explaining that he wanted to end the national divisions created by the Watergate scandal.

The Watergate scandal erupted after it was revealed that Nixon and his aides had engaged in illegal activities during his reelection campaign–and then attempted to cover up evidence of wrongdoing. With impeachment proceedings underway against him in Congress, Nixon bowed to public pressure and became the first American president to resign. At noon on August 9, Nixon officially ended his term, departing with his family in a helicopter from the White House lawn. Minutes later, Vice President Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as the 38th president of the United States in the East Room of the White House. After taking the oath of office, President Ford spoke to the nation in a television address, declaring, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”

Ford, the first president who came to the office through appointment rather than election, had replaced Spiro Agnew as vice president only eight months before. In a political scandal independent of the Nixon administration’s wrongdoings in the Watergate affair, Agnew had been forced to resign in disgrace after he was charged with income tax evasion and political corruption. Exactly one month after Nixon announced his resignation, Ford issued the former president a “full, free and absolute” pardon for any crimes he committed while in office. The pardon was widely condemned at the time.

Decades later, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation presented its 2001 Profile in Courage Award to Gerald Ford for his 1974 pardon of Nixon. In pardoning Nixon, said the foundation, Ford placed his love of country ahead of his own political future and brought needed closure to the divisive Watergate affair. Ford left politics after losing the 1976 presidential election to Democrat Jimmy Carter. Ford died on December 26, 2006, at the age of 93.

Watch the video: Barbara Walters interviews Richard Nixon - 1985