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December 27, 2006
Should Ford Have Pardoned Nixon?

One of the most contentious decisions in American political history will get thoroughly revisited in the coming days now that Gerald Ford has passed away at the grand old age of 93. The Accidental President had enjoyed a polite and unspoken consensus among political pundits not to thrash out that question too much while he was alive, but it will no doubt get more analysis now.

In fact, in the blogosphere, two people from both sides of the divide have already asked the question. Jeralyn Merritt from TalkLeft (via TMV) and Jack Yoest from Reasoned Audacity (via The Corner) both feel that Ford short-circuited a needed path to justice, while Charmaine Yoest in the same Reasoned Audacity post believes Ford did the right and necessary thing to move us past Watergate.

Certainly, I think Ford pardoned Nixon for the purpose Charmaine notes. Ford built a reputation for a tough but fair Minority Leader in the House but never had a hint of scandal in that capacity. He was not a natural for the kind of quid pro quo payoff that conspiracy theorists saw in his appointment to the Vice Presidency and his subsequent rise to the White House. In stronger days, Nixon would have looked for a partisan, but by the time he selected Ford, he needed a get-along kind of man to win confirmation, and even then it wasn't unanimous (but it was overwhelming).

My first hints of political awareness came during the Watergate hearings, which I watched with my grandparents. Understanding the status of our nation at that time puts Ford's decision in context. We had just emerged from the turbulence of the civil-rights movement, the Summer of Love, and the anti-war movement that had generated domestic terrorism on a scale unsurpassed since the Civil War. With America just about fully withdrawn from Vietnam (and the resultant collapse just around the corner), the last thing America would appear to have needed would have been a provocative trial for corruption and abuses of power -- and the worst of those perpetrators, J Edgar Hoover, had already died.

However, in the long run of history, I have to side with Jeralynn and Jack on this question. Ford had good and understandable reasons for his decision, but it did short-circuit the one quality about America that had always made us different from other nations: our leaders were not above the law. In an era where we started to discover the worst about leaders such as Nixon, LBJ, and even JFK, we lost that sense of ourselves as a nation bound by its dedication to the Constitution and the rule of law. At that time, we needed a way to bind ourselves back to that to restore a national identity in which all could share.

And I would argue that if Ford intended the pardon as a healing gesture, it didn't work. Our politics have remained poisoned by Watergate, and I believe that the Nixon pardon has contributed to that. Had Nixon stood trial, we might not have had the escalating use of independent (or special) prosecutors. That was a necessity born out of Watergate, when Nixon's Attorney General, John Mitchell, was believed too corrupt to effectively investigate the abuses of power of the Nixon administration. We could have set an example of executive accountability that would have restored some trust in politics. Instead, we got the example of one career politician letting another off the hook, and all we bought with that act was a deepened cynicism about the nature of America's democracy.

True accountability would have been a palliative, eventually, for the wounds of Watergate on the body politic. It would also have created a solid record of Nixon's alleged abuses that would stand the test of time, rather than the continuous argument we now have as to whether his crimes were overblown. A trial could also have exonerated Nixon (which prompts another question -- could Nixon have received a fair trial?). Our justice system could have provided an answer for history, but all we have left is competing memoirs and parlor arguments.

Ford was a good man and a good President. However, his first significant act as President was a mistake, though well-intentioned. America never suffers when leaders face accountability for their actions, and it never benefits when its leaders escape it.

REACTIONS: Jonathan at MyDD, interestingly, disagrees with me. His readers, even more interestingly, do not. Daniel Freedman warns against getting hung up on the pardon. Lobal Warming points out the political courage it took to issue the pardon, a point I neglected (via PJM). Atrios agrees, saying that the decision helped Washington to heal, not the nation. (I originally wrote "disagrees"; my bad -- sorry, Duncan.)

Bruce Kesler has an excellent post regarding Ford's pardon compared to Carter's pardon. Be sure to read it.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 27, 2006 5:26 AM

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