Gerald Ford hands Richard Nixon his get-out-of-jail free card.
The promising beginnings of the Ford Presidency became a quick casualty of his incomprehensible decision to grant his predecessor and benefactor a complete pardon from not only the consequences of any criminal conduct during the Nixon Presidency but even from the judicial process that would determine the nature and precise existence of that criminal conduct. And it is not only President Ford who will suffer the adverse reaction that ensued; a nation that had just begun to climb out of the shadows and the darkness of the Nixon years is now again plunged into the abyss of Watergate.
Ford’s credibility is the prime casualty of that Sunday morning decision. The sensible restraint he had announced on August 28 as to the way in which he would approach the question of a Nixon pardon was rejected just eleven days later. His earlier position had seemed eminently fair and reasonable. He would await the completion of the judicial process and would then determine whether the act of mercy and compassion flat is embodied in a Presidential pardon would be warranted. Few would have found fault with that restrained approach. And few would have protested such mercy and compassion when the full extent of Richard Nixon’s criminal conduct had been judicially defined and recorded. But the granting of the pardon prior to a beginning, let alone a completion, of the judicial process simply has to be considered an act of inequity and of injustice.
The consequences of that untimely act are many and devastating, both as to the nation’s unity and the Ford Administration’s stability. One of the purported reasons for the pardon, to end the divisiveness that further attention to Watergate would assure, not only will not be achieved; indeed, the precise opposite has occurred. The anger and outrage from the people was immediate and vehement. They perceived the act of pardon as being unworthy in two aspects. First, it was widely viewed as setting forth a different standard of accountability to the law for Presidents than for persons of lesser stature. Second, it was seen by many as representing a further cover-up of the former President’s role in Watergate, and was widely considered to have been part of a deal between Ford and Nixon.
So, the cover has not been closed on the book of Watergate by Ford’s Sunday morning pardon. It is true, the book has never been closed, but following the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment recommendation and the resulting resignation of Nixon, the tumultuous chapters of the Watergate book had been losing their emotional hold on the American public. As the judicial process continued both in the Watergate trials of the lesser conspirators and in the probable trial of Richard Nixon, the attention of the nation could not have been fully distracted from Watergate for some time to come, but it would have been a more detached interest than will now be the case. That interest, in the absence of the controversial pardon, would have been tempered by the belief that the judicial process was proceeding without interference and that Richard Nixon’s accountability, would eventually be determined and understood.