Great American Stories: Ford’s Surprising Choice
By Carl Cannon

Forty-seven years ago today, President Gerald R. Ford shocked the country, while simultaneously compromising his own 1976 election chances, by pardoning Richard Nixon.

Great American Stories: Ford’s Surprising Choice

Forty-seven years ago today, President Gerald R. Ford shocked the country, while simultaneously compromising his own 1976 election chances, by pardoning Richard Nixon.

In hindsight, it was an act of moral courage. Ford, who had been president for only a month, put the country’s welfare ahead of his own political fortunes, as his critics later acknowledged. But in the raw summer of 1974, Americans weren’t necessarily in a trusting mood. Certainly, prominent Democrats weren’t. Neither was the media.

The question in the air was this: Had Ford made a deal with Nixon prior to being chosen as vice president? Those who knew the man personally found the idea absurd. But Ford wasn’t widely known outside the Michigan congressional district he had represented on Capitol Hill for 25 years. And coming on the heels of the Vietnam War, Watergate had ravaged Nixon’s presidency and further eroded Americans’ basic confidence in their institutions.

Nonetheless, Ford did what he thought was right, explained the decision to the American people and then, the following month, made an accounting of himself before a congressional subcommittee.

Every U.S. president since Harry Truman has claimed that the “buck stops here,” but with Jerry Ford these weren’t just words.

In explaining his reasoning for pardoning Richard Nixon, President Ford noted that although he believed in equal justice for all Americas, “whatever their station or former station,” there were no historic or legal precedents to guide him, “none that precisely fit the circumstances of a private citizen who has resigned the presidency of the United States.”

So Ford was on his own. And here’s what he decided:

“The facts, as I see them, are that a former president of the United States, instead of enjoying equal treatment with any other citizen accused of violating the law, would be cruelly and excessively penalized either in preserving the presumption of his innocence or in obtaining a speedy determination of his guilt in order to repay a legal debt to society. During this long period of delay and potential litigation, ugly passions would again be aroused. And 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. …

“But it is not the ultimate fate of Richard Nixon that most concerns me, though surely it deeply troubles every decent and every compassionate person. My concern is the immediate future of this great country. In this, I dare not depend upon my personal sympathy as a longtime friend of the former president, nor my professional judgment as a lawyer, and I do not.

“As president, my primary concern must always be the greatest good of all the people of the United States whose servant I am. As a man, my first consideration is to be true to my own convictions and my own conscience. My conscience tells me clearly and certainly that I cannot prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed. My conscience tells me that only I, as president, have the constitutional power to firmly shut and seal this book. My conscience tells me it is my duty, not merely to proclaim domestic tranquility but to use every means that I have to ensure it.

“I do believe that the buck stops here, that I cannot rely upon public opinion polls to tell me what is right. I do believe that right makes might and that if I am wrong, 10 angels swearing I was right would make no difference. I do believe, with all my heart and mind and spirit, that I, not as president but as a humble servant of God, will receive justice without mercy if I fail to show mercy.

“Finally, I feel that Richard Nixon and his loved ones have suffered enough and will continue to suffer, no matter what I do, no matter what we, as a great and good nation, can do together to make his goal of peace come true.” 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.