To date Richard Nixon is the only man to ever resign the Presidency of the United States of America. If he hadn’t resigned it’s almost certain he would have been impeached and forcibly removed from office. Politically and constitutionally these were uncharted waters for the government. The decision by his successor Gerald Ford to pardon him, is therefore one that is still controversial today and many regard it as a mistake that led to him losing the 1976 election.
The standard argument put forward by Ford and his supporters is that it was the right thing to do at the time. The US had just gone through the two-year nightmare of Watergate and the decade long trauma of the Vietnam War. This was a period marked by extreme civil unrest and a collapse in trust in government. Ford decided that it would be better for the nation if they could quickly move on from this. A trial would have taken years and could potentially have destroyed the Republican Party. There is also the more cynical argument that a full trial of Richard Nixon and those around him could have uncovered all sorts of political intrigues and CIA operations better left secret.
The opposing argument is that Nixon had been caught engaging in a widespread cover-up, and that by letting him off the hook it was sending a clear signal to future leaders that they could get away with similar crimes. The huge number of scandals that have occurred since then, and the continuing erosion of public trust in government, stem I think, in part at least, from Ford’s pardon.
Part of where Ford went wrong was how he sold the decision to the American people, claiming that ‘this is a tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must’. Most citizens agreed that what was happening was a tragedy although I think they disputed Ford’s claim that everyone had played a part in it, instead rightly blaming Nixon and his inner circle.
This wasn’t even a case of justice being delayed, it was justice denied. Nixon was later publicly grilled by David Frost about the Watergate scandal and offered an apology of sorts, but then spent the rest of his life trying to rebuild his reputation by emphasising his genuine political achievements, such as his foreign policy with China. His improved standing in recent polls of American Presidents demonstrates that to a degree he succeeded.
The reason I think Ford’s pardon is a mistake is that it essentially told all future presidents that their actions would not be properly held to account by the legislature, the judiciary or anyone else. It also damaged the United States’ reputation in the rest of the world. For the next decade whenever American leaders tried to critique the wrongdoing of foreign governments, the standard reply was ‘Nixon wasn’t held to account, why should we be?’. Ford lost the 1976 election making him one of the shortest serving Presidents in American history. Obviously his many gaffe’s played a signficant role in this, such as denying that Eastern Europe was under Soviet control, but the pardon got his Presidency off to the worst possible start and many would argue he never recovered from it.
Here is Gerald Ford explaining his decision to pardon Nixon: