Great mistakes in politics (No28) Gerald Ford pardons Richard Nixon

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:

 For a full list of great mistakes in politics please click here

About matthewashton

I'm a Politics Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I specialise in the fields of American, British and media politics.
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2 Responses to Great mistakes in politics (No28) Gerald Ford pardons Richard Nixon

  1. It should be pointed out that Ford only very narrowly lost the election, which was an achievement in itself. Also, Ford’s simple human decency should not be discounted, on seeing Nixon’s (and his family) descent into emotional carnage. He may have wanted to simply end the suffering. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that Nixon was unbalanced by the end.

    One interesting suggestion made was that Ford should have pardoned Nixon, but only if Nixon gave a full confession of his crimes, and that he could be prosecuted for any crimes that he did not declare in the confession. Would have been an incredible document to read, I suspect.

    Speaking of Nixon, you might enjoy this:

    • You’re absolutely right there. I think Carter was originally 30 points ahead but only ended up winning by 1% in the end. That’s a heck of a lead to loose. I’ve read various reports of Nixon’s unbalanced behaviour towards the end which is unsurprising consider the huge pressure he was under and the amount of drugs he was being given by his doctors. Anthony Eden in Britain had the same problem during the Suez Crisis.

      I think I’d have probably been more sympathetic towards Ford’s decision if Nixon hadn’t spent so much of his time after the Presidency going around claiming that what he did was legal and ok. I would have loved it if Nixon had properly confessed to his crimes on paper. However that would have meant that he’d have spent the rest of his life with the Democrats going through every file, document and interview again and again in the hope of sending him to jail.

      I read that alternative history. Robert Kennedy in the 1980s would have been very interesting, especially as the press by that point wouldn’t have been so keen to cover up his affairs. Whether that would have forced him onto the straight or narrow or not is a debatable point but it would have been a heck of a ride.

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