Part III: Watergate: The Case of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford
When examining what could happen in the future, it is often useful to look to the past. The only presidential pardon conferred onto a former president thus far in U.S. history is that of Gerald Ford to Richard Nixon in 1973. Some speculate that similar situation could arise between Mike Pence and Donald Trump if the current investigation doesn’t go in Trump’s favor.
What Nixon Did
President Nixon was involved in the infamous “Watergate Scandal,” an illegal effort to sabotage his competition in the 1972 election. An investigation was triggered by a break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters, which was located in the Watergate complex (a collection of six buildings, mostly consisting of corporate space, in Washington D.C.).
The perpetrators were members of Nixon’s re-election committee. They had been stealing documents and wire-tapping phones, and when they got caught, Nixon denied that they were affiliated with him. He won the election, but during the subsequent investigation, he lied profusely, paid bribes, and conspired to sabotage the investigation. Much of these plans were recorded by a device in the Oval Office that Nixon himself had planted.
Thanks to enterprising journalists and a few brave whistle-blowers, the case against Nixon mounted. Finally, the Supreme Court ordered him to release the tapes. Impeachment proceedings began on the grounds of obstruction of justice, abuse of power, criminal cover-up, and other violations. Nixon decided to become the first president ever to resign rather than the first president to be impeached.
Why Ford Pardoned Him
Why did Ford, who was promoted from vice-president to president when Nixon resigned, pardon the disgraced former leader? In 1974, in a speech to the American public announcing the pardon, Ford explained that he thought American needed to put the tsuris aside and focus on healing. “My conscience tells me clearly and certainly that I cannot prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed,” he said. “My conscience tells me that only I, as President, have the constitutional power to firmly shut and seal this book.”
Ford’s decision was unpopular with the American public, which believed that Nixon should pay for his crimes. The pardon is widely believed to have contributed to Ford’s failure to win re-election.
Other Presidential Pardons
Although Ford’s pardon of Nixon was the only outright presidential pardon of another president, plenty of presidents have used this largely unbridled power to protect others or even themselves. We’ll explore this phenomenon in the next installment of this series.
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