For more on Gerald Ford and the 1976 election, watch “Race for the White House” Sunday, September 13 at 10 p.m. ET.
Forty-six years ago this month, President Gerald Ford made one of the most controversial announcements in American political history: He pardoned Richard Nixon.
And while you may know that the pardon happened, you may not realize how very big a deal it was then – or how it set a precedent for presidential behavior we see today.
Ford had been in the Oval Office for just a few weeks when he made his national address on September 8, 1974. One of the few men to become president without ever being elected to the job, Ford had been House Minority Leader when he took over for Nixon’s disgraced vice president Spiro Agnew in 1973.
When Nixon himself resigned the following year from the Watergate scandal, Ford ascended to the presidency.
“Nixon had been guilty of obstruction of justice (and) abuse of power, causing the American people to have no respect for him or respect for the office of the presidency,” said Barbara A. Perry, presidential studies director at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, in the CNN Original Series “Race for the White House.” That left Ford with the challenge of not only rebuilding the nation’s trust but also figuring out what to do about his predecessor: bring charges or grant a pardon.
Ford “felt that America needed recovery, not revenge,” the President’s son Steven said in the CNN series. “The idea was to get Nixon out of the way, heal the nation and go forward.”
But the public didn’t like the taint of Watergate or the pardon, and it damaged Ford politically.
“Ford, who had been at around 70% approval, plummeted some 30 points in the polls almost immediately,” political commentator Pat Buchanan said in “Race for the White House.” “It was one of the worst blows to hit any presidency in my lifetime.”
Recall that Nixon’s downfall came so very quickly after festering for so long. In 1972, five men were arrested after breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. For the next two years, the scandal consumed the country while Nixon claimed he had nothing to do with it.
It wasn’t until the release of the Smoking Gun tape in August 1974 that Nixon’s involvement in the cover-up became clear. And within a month, the country watched their new President Ford grant Nixon a “full, free and absolute” presidential pardon.
It was like “an unexploded grenade,” said Cazenovia College history professor John Robert Greene in the series. “I think the American public wanted some sort of a pound of flesh. And in an instant, Ford goes from being a regular guy to just being the type of president they’ve always had.”
When Ford ran for election in 1976, he failed miserably against Jimmy Carter, who was promising change in Washington.
Later, Ford was credited with taking a politically dangerous position he truly felt would help the country move on. But reading the surprise address he gave on Sunday before a round of golf, I’m struck by his argument that Nixon, after Watergate, shouldn’t have to suffer any more. Really?!
The pardon itself is amazingly broad, absolving the former President of any culpability for breaking the law during the entirety of his presidency. If you want to know why President Donald Trump seems to think he’s literally above the law, start here with the most epic pardon of all time.
On Instagram, I posted some excerpts from the speech, which I found at the Ford presidential library website, along with Nixon’s statement of apology to the country and thanks to Ford after the pardon.
Note that Nixon does not apologize for breaking the law but for giving Americans the perception he did. Which is not exactly an apology. But it’s more than you could imagine Trump saying.