Constitutional and history scholars dissect Ford's pardon of Nixon


 Photo 1: The first panel of the day featured (center) moderator Jeff Rosen, President & CEO, National Constitution Center; and panelists Judge Mark Wolfe (left), and Professor Mike Gerhardt.

Photo 2: Dean Ken Gormly, Duquesne University Law School, center, moderated the second panel, which featured former Grand Rapids Mayor Hon. John Logie, and Hon. Jill Wine-Banks.

Photo 3: Jeff Rosen of the National Constitution Center also moderated a discussion at the Economics Club luncheon with, left to right, Dean Ken Gormly, who filled in for Prof. Benton Becker; former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens; Rosen; and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil.



By Cynthia Price
Legal News


On Oct. 20, history buffs, President Gerald R. Ford fans, and many of those who just lived through it had an opportunity to get their fill of discussion and information on a cardinal event during turbulent times in the United States.

The National Constitution Center, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation and, in one instance, the Economic Club of Grand Rapids hosted a trio of events on President Ford’s 1974 pardon of former President Richard M. Nixon.

Nixon had resigned after Congress brought impeachment proceedings against him based on his involvement in the notorious Watergate scandal. Ford, who was Vice President because Nixon had appointed him as a result of a different scandal causing Spiro Agnew’s resignation, said upon being sworn in, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over... Our Constitution works.”

President Ford claimed at the time, and continued to say all his life, that his primary motivation in granting the pardon was to put an end to that nightmare by not drawing out the process of bringing Nixon to justice.

At the Oct. 20 events in Grand Rapids, son Steven Ford remembered his father explaining to him that in this case the  President of the U.S. was like the father in a family.

“When a family member does something wrong and gets in trouble — I’m sure he was referring to me — “ Ford said with a grin, “there are consequences and penalties and discipline. But a father has a choice to grant grace and mercy if he thinks that carrying out the full consequence will rip the family apart. When he gave me that analogy, it made great sense. There was so much grace and mercy in Dad’s choice.”

At the time, most of the public strongly disagreed. Some even conjectured that he and Nixon had entered into a quid pro quo agreement when Agnew resigned, such that Ford could ascend to the presidency based on a promise to issue a full pardon.

 The New York Times for Sept. 8, 1974, the day of the pardon, reported, “Most Democrats who commented voiced varying degrees of disapproval and dismay, while most Republican comment backed President Ford.”

History has proven much more kind to President Ford. Television news mainstay Tom Brokaw contributed a video segment to the morning panel at the G.R. Ford Museum. After noting that the White House switchboards lit up with angry calls, Brokaw says he believes, “The president had no guile, there was no hidden agenda. He thought this was the right thing to do.”

The decision probably cost Ford the election in 1976, and the historical record indicates that he was well aware he was taking that risk.

Carl Bernstein of the famed Woodward and Bernstein Washington Post reporting team, who broke the Watergate story, originally expressed his disgust at the pardon in very colorful terms. But years later he told Pro Publica, “It turns out it really was a courageous and necessary act,”

President Ford was given the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 2001 for his pardon of Nixon. Then-Senator Ted Kennedy, who presented the award, acknowledged that though he had opposed the pardon in 1974, upon later consideration, he applauded Ford for making the right decision.

There were many revelations at the nearly-full-day event in Grand Rapids commemorating the 40th anniversary of the pardon that support the contention that President Ford cared very much about the constitution and the repercussions of his action.

Though a portion of the objections at the time centered on the sense that the pardon put just one individual above the law, Ford had done some careful investigation on the legal repercussions of issuing a pardon.

One of the revelations had a distinctly local nature. Former Mayor John Logie recalled that one Friday morning in 1974, when he was a young lawyer at Warner Norcross and Judd (where he still is Of Counsel), he was called in to a meeting by the well-known Hal Sawyer —?“a wonderful trial lawyer, the best I ever saw,” commented Logie.

Sawyer pulled together a small group of attorneys at the firm to work over the weekend on a secret mission, which came from President Ford’s White House Counsel Phillip Buchen, who feared, Logie said, that D.C. attorneys would be “leaky sieves.” 

Logie continued, ‘Hal said Phil had told him, ‘I need some research done in confidence. I want answers to one question: what is the actual scope of the presidential pardon power?’ He said he needed them by Monday morning.”

The team worked all weekend, and along with Buchen, focused on the decision in Burdick v. United States. In the 1915 case, Supreme Court Justice Joseph McKenna ruled that a pardon “carries an imputation of guilt; acceptance a confession of it.”

President Ford carried a scrap of paper referring to Burdick in his wallet for years. Panelist Ken Gormly, while he was researching his book Archibald Cox: Conscience of a Nation about the Watergate Special Prosecutor, saw that “folded-up scrap” when he met with Ford in the 1990s. “He felt so strongly about Nixon’s acceptance being an admission of guilt,” Gormly said. “He said it bothered him that that was overlooked by the media at the time.”

Indeed, Richard Nixon, not known for his naiveté, was well aware that his acceptance of the pardon meant he acknowledged he was guilty. Ford’s emissary to Nixon in California, young attorney Benton Becker, was prevented from attending the Oct. 20 commemoration by illness, but Becker gave Gormly notes to pass along and appeared in a tape made by Gormly during a conference on Watergate

On the tape, Becker says that most of the week he was in California, things did not go well. Nixon’s attorneys negotiated from the point of view that he would sign the pardon only if it exempted him from admission of guilt. “I finally told them, ‘I’m going home. When I walk through that door, the pardon and all discussions on pardons leave with me,’” Becker relates. After discovering that he was serious about flying out, Nixon called him back and gave him the signed acceptance.

One person who was both a historical participant and a panelist, Jill Wine-Banks, said she had experienced a change of heart based on some of these later revelations. Wine-Banks was a member of the prosecutors’ team, in fact the person who famously questioned Nixon’s secretary about a key piece of evidence — a gap in the private conversation tapes Nixon had made.

“I still think a trial would’ve been just as healing and we could have gone ahead with it. But I thank Benton Becker for putting it all in context for me and making me really understand that President Ford acted to restore integrity to the presidency,” she said.

At the Economic Club luncheon, long-serving Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, a Ford appointee who retired in 2010, said, “President Ford’s view of the law and constitution is illustrated by the pardon itself, a very unpopular decision which may well have cost him reelection to the presidency. He knew at the time it might have those kinds of consequences. But it was a choice between the past and the future – should he concentrate on a just remedy for his predecessor, or should he go for healing the nation? It seems that going for the future was the better decision for the country.”

And Paul O’Neill, former Secretary of the Treasury at the time, added, “His distinguishng character was his humility. The self-confidence he had was because of his own confidence in the value system he grew up with,”