Fifteen years after Gerald R. Ford’s post-Watergate pardon of Richard M. Nixon shocked the nation and gravely wounded his presidency, that action is getting more favorable reviews from historians than it got back then from the public, political leaders and even some of those same historians.
Stephen E. Ambrose, respected biographer of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nixon, “cursed and screamed” when he first heard of the pardon. But now, Ambrose told a conference on the Ford presidency that concludes here today, he believes that “Ford was absolutely right to do what he did.”
“It may have been something he had to do, but he still deserves credit for doing it forthrightly, courageously, at his own expense and quickly,” Ambrose said. “The last thing this country needed in 1975-76 was to tear itself yet further apart over the fate of Richard Nixon.”
That view summed up the apparent majority sentiment among scholars and political figures participating in the conference, sponsored by Long Island’s Hofstra University.
The three-day meeting, the seventh in a series on modern presidents, ranged over many aspects of Ford’s 30-month presidency. But the still-smoldering controversy over the pardon was of special salience, with two panel discussions devoted to it, because rarely has any single decision by any President had such fateful consequences for his tenure in the Oval Office.
Ford pardoned Nixon on Sept. 8, 1974, a month before the Watergate cover-up trial of high Nixon aides and before any legal action had been taken against the resigned President.
“It was the right thing to do,” said Donald H. Rumsfeld, Ford’s former White House chief of staff and secretary of defense. “But it was probably not at the right time. And certainly a high price was paid.”
Many at the conference suggested that the pardon, more than any other factor, had sealed the doom of Ford’s 1976 presidential campaign against Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter. And Ford himself, addressing an audience of high school students here Friday, said the pardon “unquestionably was a factor” in his defeat.
Ford explained, as he has in the past, that his main motive was to close out a disruptive and distracting episode.
“I finally decided that I should spend all my time on the problems of all Americans and not 25% of my time on the problems of one man,” the 75-year-old former President said. “It was an easy decision when you put it in that context.”
Scholars who now support Ford’s action say their view in part is shaped by the fact that, despite intensive research in the Nixon and Ford records, no persuasive evidence has been turned up to support suspicion rife at the time that the two men had made a cynical agreement to trade the presidency for a reprieve.
After interviewing more than 40 former Ford aides in connection with a forthcoming book on the Ford and Nixon presidencies, J. Robert Greene, a Cazenovia (N.Y.) College professor, said in an interview: “There is nobody you can talk to in the Ford Administration who believes there was a deal” under which Nixon agreed to resign in return for a Ford promise to pardon him.
But the major factor accounting for the present positive consensus on the pardon seems to be just the mellowness that comes with the passage of the years.
“You can’t divorce historians from the passions of their time,” said Hofstra political scientist Bernard J. Firestone, director of the conference, who contended that scholars have a more balanced perspective on the issue in 1989 than they did in 1974.
Those who now give the pardon at least qualified approval include even some scholars regarded as stern Nixon critics, such as University of Wisconsin historian and Watergate chronicler Stanley I. Kutler.
Kutler told the conference that Ford’s action “had substantial merit” and amounted to “a brave decision” that enabled him to “get on with the business of running the government.”
Kutler argued that, by granting Nixon the pardon--which, he pointed out, the U.S. Supreme Court has held carries with it “an imputation of guilt"--Ford had obtained for the country what amounted to a legal judgment on Nixon’s behavior. Such a finding, he said, could otherwise have been gained only after a long trial, with the outcome problematical at best.
Nevertheless, Kutler contended that the newly installed chief executive erred by failing to line up support from other political figures in both parties before announcing his decision.
“He should have called in the congressional leaders and said, ‘Look guys, this thing (the public preoccupation with Nixon and Watergate) is killing us,’ ” Kutler said in an interview. In this way, he argued, Ford could have persuaded other politicians to back his action, instead of condemning it, as most did.
But some at the conference questioned whether there would in reality have been any way for Ford to grant the pardon without stirring an uproar and hurting himself politically.
“Once you decide to do it, and do it quickly, you almost can’t do it right,” said Jerry H. Jones, former Nixon and Ford White House aide, pointing to the public resentment and suspicion of Nixon in the wake of Watergate. “
In another analysis of the pardon prepared for the conference, Louisiana State University professor William D. Pederson attributed much of the initial criticism to “the low regard” that the critics had for Nixon. “His (Nixon’s) Machiavellian nature” intensified suspicions about Ford’s behavior, Pederson said.
But, after reviewing Ford’s overall record on granting amnesty, clemency and pardons in other cases, including to Vietnam draft resisters, and the clemency records of other presidents, Pederson contended: “The evidence suggests that the pardon (of Nixon) was an act of magnanimous rather than Machiavellian leadership.”
The pardon was also defended from a constitutional standpoint by Mary Washington College professor Mark J. Rozell. In a study prepared for the conference, Rozell cited a range of legal authorities and precedents to rebut criticism that the pardon was illegal because it was granted prior to a conviction or because it was too vague or interfered with the authority of the special Watergate prosecutor.
Rozell contended that the pardon was justified because, with the tremendous publicity given to the disclosures of his Watergate misconduct, Nixon would have had a hard time getting a fair trial had he been indicted.
“The pardon of Richard M. Nixon failed to put Watergate immediately behind us, and it harmed President Ford’s efforts to heal the nation of its cynicism toward political Washington,” Rozell conceded. “But, from a legal standpoint, and from the standpoint of serving justice, his decision was justified.”