On This Day

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Associated Press
President Ford announces his pardon of Richard Nixon in the White House, Sept. 8, 1974.

On This Day: President Ford Pardons Richard Nixon

September 08, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Sept. 8, 1974, President Ford granted former President Nixon “a full, free and absolute pardon … for all offenses against the United States” committed during the period of his presidency, freeing him from the possibility of indictment or prosecution for his role in the Watergate scandal.

Nixon Pardoned

“I have come to a decision which I felt I should tell you and all of my fellow American citizens, as soon as I was certain in my own mind and in my own conscience that it is the right thing to do,” Ford began his speech on that Sunday morning.

President Nixon had resigned only one month earlier, facing the possibility of impeachment for the cover-up of a failed break-in of the Democratic National Committee’s office at the Watergate Hotel.

Ford said that he made his decision partly due to pure compassion, Time magazine reported. But most importantly, “Ford hoped that the pardon would help heal the nation.”

Bringing Nixon to trial could have taken months or years, and in that time, “ugly passions would again be aroused, our people would again be polarized in their opinions, and the credibility of our free institutions of Government would again be challenged at home and abroad,” Ford said.

Background: Watergate Scandal

The Watergate scandal gripped the nation when it erupted in 1972. Following the incident at the hotel, two Washington Post writers, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, began reporting on the FBI’s investigation of the event. With the help of a secret source—“Deep Throat,” who in 2005 was finally revealed to be FBI agent W. Mark Felt—the two reported that the Nixon administration had orchestrated the break-in.

In February 1973, the Senate formed a committee to investigate the events at the Watergate Hotel; hearings began in May and lasted for almost three months, during which former White House counsel John Dean revealed many key details of Nixon’s cover-up.

But even more damaging evidence was to come. In August, a tape recording from June 1972 surfaced, which revealed that Nixon and White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman had conspired to hinder the FBI investigation by having the CIA shut it down. With so much evidence stacked against him, Nixon resigned on Aug. 8, 1974.

Controversy Over the Pardon

In October 1974, President Ford submitted himself to a congressional committee hearing for questions regarding his pardoning of Nixon. Many believed he’d made a deal with Nixon to pardon him if he would resign.

“The session left troubling questions unanswered, doubts unresolved, and Ford still struggling to find a way of exorcising the wraith of Nixon that haunts his presidency,” Time magazine reported.

During questioning, Ford did admit that he’d known about the contents of the infamous “smoking gun” tape that implicated Nixon and Haldeman, but said that he continued to believe that Nixon was innocent. Ford also admitted that he had discussed a pardon with President Nixon while he was still vice president.

But, as Time reported, despite these admissions, Ford fervently insisted that “there was no deal, period,” between him and Nixon, and that he issued the pardon thinking it was best for the country: “I wanted to do all I could to change our attentions from the pursuit of a fallen president to the pursuit of the urgent needs of a rising nation."

No matter how many of those involved in the Watergate scandal deny that there was a deal between Nixon and Ford, however, doubts persist.

On Dec. 31, 2006, shortly after Ford’s death, Al Haig, who had been Nixon’s chief of staff, appeared on CBS news show “Face the Nation” as part of a panel of speakers remembering President Ford.

When asked about the rumored deal, Haig replied, “Why would a rational man who had just heard that he's about to be president risk everything by doing something like that? Doing a conditional deal? He was going to be president no matter what. That was a simple fact. And he was smart enough to know it.”

Biography: Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford served 25 years in Congress, serving as House minority leader from 1965 to 1973. Following the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew in October 1973, Nixon chose the popular and widely respected Ford to serve as vice president.

Ford became president less than a year later. He was sworn into office on Aug. 9, 1974, declaring that “the long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works.” He became the first man ever to become president without being elected as president or vice president.

Serving from 1974 to 1977, “Ford continued as he had in his Congressional days to view himself as ‘a moderate in domestic affairs, a conservative in fiscal affairs, and a dyed-in-the-wool internationalist in foreign affairs,’” according to his White House biography.

Ford had hoped the pardon would help bring the nation together but, if anything, it had the opposite effect. “Instead of further salving the wound of Watergate, Ford re-opened it,” according to the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. “The howls of protest from both politicians and the public … greatly damaged Ford's popularity and ended his honeymoon.” He just over two years in office, losing his re-election bid in 1976 to Jimmy Carter.

Ford died on Dec. 26, 2006, at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., at the age of 93. “For a nation that needed healing, and for an office that needed a calm and steady hand, Gerald Ford came along when we needed him most,” said President George W. Bush.

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