Philip Buchen; Helped Organize Transition to Ford’s Presidency
Philip Buchen, who in early 1974 led a group that was preparing in secret for the possibility of a Gerald Ford presidency and who later, as White House counsel, worked on the legal mechanics of Ford’s controversial pardon of Richard M. Nixon, died of pneumonia Monday at his Washington home. He was 85.
Buchen, a longtime friend and law partner of Ford’s, was a trusted aide on his vice presidential staff who began organizing for a transition of power when it was becoming clearer that Nixon could be forced to resign the presidency because of the Watergate scandal.
One of Ford’s first acts after he took office Aug. 9, 1974, was to appoint Buchen counsel and elevate the position to Cabinet level. In the days afterward, Buchen scrambled to help put together an administration and consult on the matter of the pardon.
White-haired, scholarly and slowed not at all by the effects of a teenage bout of polio, Buchen delivered to Ford an influential memo written by a Nixon aide that strongly argued for clemency.
Though it involved weighty political questions, Buchen advised Ford on the legality of a pardon. Specifically, he was called to answer whether a pardon could be granted in advance of an indictment. Buchen later told reporters that it was “very likely” that Nixon would have faced federal criminal charges and that the pardon therefore was justified.
He also consulted with Watergate prosecutors to determine the timing of possible legal action against Nixon.
Buchen was not privy to meetings between Nixon aide Alexander M. Haig Jr. and other Ford assistants on a deal to keep Nixon out of prison. Some Ford advisors worried that his exclusion would cause Buchen to resign, compounding the political damage Ford had already suffered.
But Buchen had never considered resignation. And though he would later express some reservations about the pardon decision, he served Ford until 1977, when Ford left office, remaining loyal to the friend he had made during his college days.
“Philip Buchen was one of my dearest friends for over 50 years,” Ford said Tuesday in a statement. He “did a superb job for me as my White House counsel. . . . He was an outstanding citizen with a superb record in the legal profession.”
On Monday, Ford was honored with the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for the Nixon pardon.
Buchen was born and raised in Sheboygan, Wis., the son of Gustav Buchen, a Wisconsin state senator. Philip Buchen was stricken with polio when he was 16 and thereafter walked with difficulty and the aid of a cane.
He was treated for polio at Warm Springs, Ga., and there met Franklin Roosevelt, who also had had polio. Buchen later would say Roosevelt’s example was an inspiration for him to learn to walk and to become a scholar.
Buchen received bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of Michigan, where he was editor of the law review. He met Ford through their membership in the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity. Upon Buchen’s graduation in 1941, he set up a law office with Ford in Grand Rapids, Mich. The firm, Ford and Buchen, was dissolved when Ford went to serve in World War II.
Buchen practiced law in Grand Rapids at various firms and again joined a partnership with Ford in the 1960s, when Ford was a Michigan congressman.
Buchen helped to found Grand Valley State College in Allendale, Mich., where he was a vice president from 1961 to 1967, before he returned to law practice.
After Ford was named vice president in 1974, following Spiro Agnew’s resignation a few months earlier, he named Buchen executive director of the Domestic Council Committee on the Right of Privacy.
Buchen was at this post when the Watergate scandal began deepening. He concluded in May 1974 that the onrushing events could force Nixon out of office and that Ford would need an administrative framework for any transition.
Along with Clay Whitehead, a Nixon White House official, Buchen met in secret with close Ford aides. It was months later that he revealed the workings of the “Buchen Project” to Ford. A few days before Nixon resigned, Buchen met with the future president at dinner. As they left, Buchen put his arm around Ford’s shoulders and said, “It’s happening.”
Buchen spent much of his White House tenure working on the aftermath of the Nixon scandal. He advised against a pardon for Watergate defendants and helped negotiate the unusual arrangement that kept confidential some of the Nixon documents.
Buchen also defended Ford against questions raised in 1976 that the president had made personal use of campaign funds. He also advised against a pardon for Agnew.
Buchen purposely shunned the limelight, saying in a 1974 interview, “I only provide legal service.”
After leaving the White House, he was a partner at the Washington law firm that would become Dewey Ballantine LLP. He practiced there until he retired in 1995.
Survivors include his wife of 54 years, the former Beatrice Loomis of Washington; a son, Roderick, of Tampa, Fla.; a daughter, Victoria Aler of Scottsdale, Ariz.; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
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