HIS NAME was dirt after he pardoned Richard Nixon in 1974, but President Gerald M. Ford did it anyway. His approval rating plummeted from 71 percent to 36 percent in less than a year. The unconditional pardon may well have cost Ford his bid to win the White House in 1976, but it is a reason Americans may look at Ford with gratitude and respect in 2006.
Consider Ford's example as a lesson in how actions that might seem all wrong in the heat of the moment, can look so right in retrospect.
Nixon chose Ford to replace Vice President Spiro Agnew, who was forced to resign when he pleaded no contest to charges of tax evasion. After Watergate caught up with Nixon, forcing him to resign, Ford became president. Perhaps it is because Ford was America's only president to come into office without being elected to national office that he made a decision as unpopular as pardoning Nixon. There were no focus groups or internal pollsters weighing in on whether and how Ford should issue a pardon. Ford's timing -- he issued the "full, free and absolute pardon" of Nixon on Sept. 8, 1974 -- was abysmal. In his rush to act before an indictment, Ford did not wait until after the November 1974 election. There was more than one meaning to Ford's moniker of "the accidental president."
As Nixon himself would have put it, mistakes were made. Before Nixon resigned, his chief of staff, Alexander Haig, reportedly approached Ford with a deal -- a Nixon resignation in exchange for a promise of a presidential pardon. After some dancing, Ford refused the offer -- only to sugarcoat the nature of the exchange when he testified before the House in October 1974. Also, Ford pardoned Nixon after he led the public to believe that he would not do so.
Many Democrats and Republicans believed Ford should have wrung an admission of guilt from Nixon in exchange for the pardon. But as GOP operative Kenneth Khachigian, who was a speechwriter for Nixon, told me over the phone, the short statement in which Nixon admitted to being "wrong in not acting more decisively" on Watergate went "about as far as you could get Nixon to go."
Many Americans were furious. Conservative columnist George F. Will railed that the pardon showed Ford was not committed to "equal justice under law." As a gubernatorial candidate, Democrat Jerry Brown told The Chronicle that Ford was wrong to pardon Nixon "before the special prosecutor had completed his independent review of the evidence."
Of 32 Letters to the Editor printed in The Chronicle in the week following the pardon, only two supported Ford. One reader called the pardon "the grossest insult ever perpetrated against the working, taxpaying American citizen."
In the end, the pardon spared the country from public rancor, further tarnishing of the institution of the presidency and a decline in the voters' faith in their government likely to occur if a former president stood trial. Khachigian noted, "If there had been a prosecution, (Nixon critics) probably would have said he wasn't charged enough. Nothing ever satisfies them."
Besides, without a trial, Nixon paid for his misdeeds. He became the first president to resign, and to do so in disgrace. Thus history will remember him.
The same can be said of President Bill Clinton, whom the House impeached, but the Senate failed to convict. In both cases, the need to punish illegal behavior was sated -- if outside the criminal justice system -- then put aside in recognition of the need, as Ford put it when he pardoned Nixon, to "look forward to an agenda for the future, to unify, to bind up the nation's wounds."
Young people especially mocked the notion that a pardon would heal the nation. Khachigian recalled walking from the White House across Lafayette Park on the evening Nixon resigned; he saw thousands of college students and young adults cheering, laughing and gloating. I wasn't there, but I was cheering, too.
I was in sync with the Baby Boom generation that wanted to see more scandal exposed, more mighty men brought low and more comeuppance -- even if it meant more national wallowing in the mud. But the accidental president was right: The time had come for America to move forward.
Ford later told the Washington Post's Bob Woodward that the public reaction "didn't faze me one bit. If anything, it made me more stubborn (that) I was right." And he was right.