The Pardon That Brought No Peace

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Some cynics assumed that a deal had been struck between Ford and Nixon in the fateful early days of August: Nixon would quit if Ford would agree to pardon him at the earliest feasible moment. But that seemed highly unlikely, particularly considering that the pressures on Nixon to resign grew irresistible after it was revealed—three days before he quit—that Nixon had long been involved in the Watergate cover-up and had repeatedly lied to the nation about his actual role.

Credibility Question. By taking such sweeping action so soon, Ford damaged his efforts to restore confidence in the U.S. presidency and opened his own credibility gap. When asked during his vice-presidential confirmation hearings about the possibility of his granting a pardon should Nixon need one, Ford replied: "I don't think the public would stand for it." On the day that Ford was inaugurated as President, his press secretary, J.F. terHorst, reiterated that statement to reporters. On Sunday, immediately before Ford's speech, terHorst resigned in protest against the pardon. At his first press conference on Aug. 28, Ford said that he was not ruling out the possibility of a pardon, but "there have been no charges made, there has been no action by the courts, there has been no action by any jury, and until any legal process has been undertaken, I think it is unwise and untimely for me to make any commitment."

Certain to Indict. Hardly had he spoken those words when Ford concluded that he very quickly had to make a commitment. The White House had reason to believe that prosecutors were right on the verge of bringing criminal charges against Nixon. The Watergate grand jury, which had named Nixon as an unindicted coconspirator, was ready to receive the evidence. All that was needed to begin the case was to get the approval of the Watergate special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski. Then Jaworski made clear that if the decision were left to him alone, he would prosecute Nixon. The law, said Jaworski, demanded an indictment. His staff agreed unanimously.

Indeed, Jaworski had told Ford's legal counsel, Philip Buchen, that the grand jury was virtually certain to indict Nixon and the list of charges could be lengthy and varied. The White House believed that the indictments would be handed down as soon as the second week of September—this week—although Jaworski in fact did not intend to obtain them until after the Watergate cover-up jury was sequestered in October. Still, it was clear that Nixon could be spared only by one act by one man: a pardon from Gerald Ford.

Ford was also troubled by reports about Nixon's mental state: that he was deeply depressed, that he could not pull himself together to start rebuilding his life, that he was making self-pitying phone calls to old defenders. The Administration was embarrassed because Nixon was sending odd letters to leaders of foreign nations. Speculation swirled in Washington that Nixon might take some drastic action against himself.

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