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The Pardon

By Matthew Yglesias on December 27, 2006 at 4:25 pm

"The Pardon"

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Because you’re all dying to hear what I have to say about Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon:


Here’s the thing. Promoting “healing” and a sense of “moving on” was, in fact, arguably more important than seeing Richard Nixon spend years in a jail cell. But there’s a proper way to handle situations of that type designed to promote precisely those goals. It’s the Truth and Reconciliation Commission model where ancien regime figures confess to their political crimes in exchange for amnesty. The general idea is that such an arrangement does more to promote actual resolution of the issues than would an adversarial trial process in which the accused have the incentive to destroy evidence, deny everything, and stymie investigations.

That’s not at all what Ford did. As you’ll read here, he took the bizarre step of granting Nixon “a full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from July (January) 20, 1969 through August 9, 1974.” Nixon, in response, offered not a confession, but only an extraordinarily vague message of pseudo-contrition:

Looking back on what is still in my mind a complex and confusing maze of events, decisions, pressures and personalities, one thing I can see clearly now is that I was wrong in not acting more decisively and more forthrightly in dealing with Watergate, particularly when it reached the stage of judicial proceedings and grew from a political scandal into a national tragedy.

No words can describe the depths of my regret and pain at the anguish my mistakes over Watergate have caused the nation and the presidency — a nation I so deeply love and an institution I so greatly respect.

I know many fair-minded people believe that my motivations and action in the Watergate affair were intentionally self-serving and illegal. I now understand how my own mistakes and misjudgments have contributed to that belief and seemed to support it. This burden is the heaviest one of all to bear.

That the way I tried to deal with Watergate was the wrong way is a burden I shall bear for every day of the life that is left to me.

Nixon, in short, confessed to nothing. And Ford — a member of Nixon’s own administration, elevated to the Vice Presidency by Nixon himself — offered blanket amnesty for unspecified crimes.

What’s more, by the time of the pardon it had become clear that “Watergate” as such — a break-in to the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters and a subsequent coverup of the involvement of the Committee to Re-Elect the President in the burglary — was really the least of our Nixon-related concerns. The Watergate incident happens to have been the caper that first led to fruitful investigations of the Nixon administration, but turned out to be merely a small piece of a very large puzzle of abuses of power. Nixon expressed no contrition whatsoever about any of those matters. Nor did Ford in his address to the nation acknowledge that he had just pardoned Nixon not only for “Watergate” but for the whole kit and kaboodle, a series of events whose very occurrences neither Ford nor Nixon even acknowledged.

Consequently, the ostensible goal of the pardon — national reconciliation — was simply not achieved. Neither Nixon, Ford, the Republican Party, nor the conservative movement in any of its manifestations acknowledged that the President of the United States had been spear-heading a broad-based criminal conspiracy aimed at suppressing the anti-war movement and other civil society manifestations of opposition to Nixon’s policies.

The pardon did, however, achieve its intended purpose of establishing the fiction that there was some particular “Watergate” incident, separate from the overall pattern of Nixonian governance, and limited to a very small roster of personnel.

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