President Gerald Ford (R) pardoned President Richard Nixon (R), (who had chosen Ford to be his vice-president), just before Nixon could be tried for conspiracy and impeached by Congress for his role in the Watergate scandal. Gerald Ford had been the Minority Leader in the House of Representatives. He was chosen by Nixon to be Vice-President, following the resignation of Spiro Agnew in October 1973. In the new president’s own words, he was a “Ford, not a Lincoln”.
The pardon became one of the most controversial aspects of the Watergate scandal. There were allegations and suggestions that Nixon had struck a deal with Ford before resigning. Ford denied these allegations and maintained that the pardon was the only way the nation could heal the wounds of Watergate.
Nixon knew that his defense was doomed and chose to throw in the towel without a Senate trial. But President Gerald Ford compounded the damage from Nixon’s presidency when he issued a sweeping pardon of Nixon that practically condemned future generations of Americans to being governed by lawless presidents.
In 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson named Ford as one of two members of the House to serve on the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Ford was elected minority leader of the House the next year. During these years, Ford acquired a reputation as an amiable politician who followed his party’s dogma with enthusiasm but with no malice; Democrats perceived him as a nice guy. Ford was known inside the Justice Department as a loyal supporter of the FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover. According to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, he served in late 1963 as an informant for the Bureau on the inner workings of the Warren Commission.
Ford is a hero in Washington in part because he covered up the crimes of the state. His most famous action was his pardoning of Richard M. Nixon, the man who chose him to be vice president after Spiro Agnew was forced to resign in disgrace. Nixon was guilty of illegally invading a foreign country (Cambodia); of perpetuating the war in Vietnam for political purposes and his 1972 reelection campaign; of violating the rights of tens of thousands of Americans with the illegal FBI COINTELPRO program; of sanctioning CIA violence and subversion around the globe; and Watergate, as well as many other offenses. Nixon also created Amtrak.
Many people assume that President Ford pardoned Nixon only for Watergate. In reality, Ford’s pardon was so sweeping — forgiving Nixon for any and every possible crime he may have committed — that it would have exempted Nixon even from charges of genocide: Now, therefore, I, Gerald R. Ford, President of the United States, pursuant to the pardon power conferred upon me by Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution, have granted and by these presents do grant a full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from January 20, 1969, through August 9, 1974.
Ford’s pardon effectively closed the book on holding Nixon culpable for his crimes against the Constitution, Americans, and millions of other people around the world.
If Nixon had been publicly tried and a full accounting of his abuses made to the American public, it may have been far more difficult for subsequent presidents to cover up their crimes. Politicians remembering Nixon’s punishment and humiliation might have been slower to lie the nation into unnecessary foreign wars. If Ford was hell-bent on pardoning his friend, he should have had the decency to wait until the evidence was on the table.
And those who are concerned about how Nixon would have personally suffered from being prosecuted for all his crimes are cold-hearted towards the tens of thousands of Americans who have been killed and maimed in subsequent unnecessary wars. Making one politician pay the price of his conduct could have saved Americans and the world vast suffering.
But the friends of Leviathan have benefited immensely from the obscuring, if not the burying, of the vast majority of the crimes of the Nixon era. The more clearly people recalled Nixon’s abuses, the more difficult it would be to sway them to accept that government is inherently benevolent and trustworthy. The media’s Nixon rendition routinely starts and stops at Watergate. It is typical of the establishment media to treat a crime against a competing political party as a far graver offense than the trampling of the rights of tens of thousands of Americans by COINTELPRO (which began in the late 1950s and metastasized under Lyndon Johnson).
Ford’s pardon of Nixon set a precedent of absolute immunity for the president for all crimes committed in office. Ford’s pardon proclaimed a new doctrine in American law and politics — that one president can absolve another president of all his crimes and all his killings. His pardon signaled the formal end of the rule of law in America.
The lesson that Ford’s top advisors seemed to draw from the pardon is that the government can break the law with impunity. Ford’s former chief of staff, Dick Cheney, brought this doctrine into the Bush administration, where it helped unleash torture around the world.
The Nixon pardon stirred up so much anger that an attempt was made to amend the constitution to allow presidential pardons to be overturned by a two-thirds vote of Congress. The attempt failed, and the president retained his full clemency power. Ford issued 382 pardons during his time in office, a fairly high number considering he was only in office for 29 months.