Stanley Kutler: Controversy over Nixon pardon lives on





[Stanley I. Kutler is the author of "The Wars of Watergate."]

In death, President Gerald Ford's pardon of the disgraced Richard Nixon in 1974 continues to generate misgivings and criticism. Nixon had resigned in August in the wake of the two-year-old Watergate scandal, which had revealed his abuses of power and his obstruction of justice.

The Los Angeles Times observed then that "the pardon was a mistake, inconsistent with the fundamental principle that everyone, including the president, is equal before the law." After Nixon's years of stonewalling and lying, the Times concluded that we "would have been better served by letting the legal process take its course, no matter how uncertain."

Some controversies will not die, although they long have outlived their usefulness and time has settled whatever vexed us at the moment.

Indeed, the pardon crated a national uproar and hampered Ford's election bid in 1976. The immediate popular acclaim he received when he succeeded Nixon soon dissipated in a cloud of innuendoes of a deal, good and bad jokes (mostly about Nixon), or at best, disdain for Ford as a mere bumbling politician.

Ford's failure to touch political base with the congressional leadership compounded the hostile reception.

The immediate firestorm was, of course, very real, but it must not affect our historical judgment of the wisdom of Ford's decision. Put simply, the pardon spared us years of court proceedings, riding a wave of national obsession about Watergate.

Watergate must never be dismissed as minor or inconsequential. It was important, and it led to one of the nation's most memorable presidential moments: Richard Nixon, who loved to be first in so many things, became the first U.S. president to resign. Some contend that his act short-circuited the prescribed constitutional intent to remove a president by impeachment. But the Constitution recognizes the possibility of resignation. Nixon probably would have been impeached, but we should be less certain of a Senate conviction.

The proceedings would have been lengthy, with unimaginable consequences for the government and the nation. The resignation spared us that ordeal. Nixon faced the prospect of further proceedings in court. But there was little stomach for that prospect. It is difficult to find any officials of consequence and influence who favored putting Nixon in the dock.

If Nixon had gone to trial, he might well have been convicted. But as the subsequent 20 years of his life proved, Nixon was no stranger to litigation. He would have pursued appeals and might have won a reversal on technical grounds. What then of our history?

No, Ford wisely gave Nixon a pardon. The law recognizes that acceptance of a pardon is acknowledgment of guilt. For that reason, Nixon bitterly regretted taking the pardon.

If Nixon successfully thwarted judicial proceedings to gain an acquittal, would time have vindicated him and repudiated his rejection? Quite probably.

Nixon relentlessly pursued a 20-year campaign to revise his history, a campaign that remains ongoing with unceasing efforts by his admirers.

Ironically, Ford's pardon haunts Nixon's reputation, a reputation he fought so fiercely to burnish. The former president almost never mentioned the pardon in his endless flow of memoirs. Special prosecutor Leon Jaworski tartly said it was no diploma for proud display.

Ford's charity and wise sense of history in granting the pardon proved to show Nixon's ignominy, reminding us of who and what he was. We are in Ford's debt.

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