On this day in 1974, President Gerald Ford grants a “full, free, and absolute pardon” to former President Richard Nixon, who then faced possible criminal charges related to the Watergate scandal. Ford had been in office for only a month.
Americans were irate! Shouldn’t Nixon be put on trial, just as any normal citizen would?
The New York Times blasted the pardon as “a profoundly unwise, divisive and unjust act.” Ford’s press secretary quit! Senator Ted Kennedy called it “the culmination of the Watergate cover-up.” Some people accused Ford of brokering a deal with Nixon. Had Nixon agreed to resign in return for his own pardon?
Needless to say, Ford’s personal popularity took a hit, and his approval rating plummeted.
Ford himself was a bit taken aback. He expected the decision to be unpopular, but he was shocked at the extent of Americans’ outrage. From his point of view, however, the pardon was necessary. In fact, he’d probably more or less known what he was going to do, at least since his first presidential press conference on August 28.
At that press conference, the new President had been ready for questions about the economy or foreign affairs. He got some of those, but he was also overwhelmed with questions about Watergate. Other meetings in the White House kept getting sidetracked on the issue, too. Taken together, such events reinforced his impression that the country could not move on until the issue with Nixon was resolved.
And he knew that the legal proceedings could drag on for months or years.
“I was called upon to spend 25% of my time in the Oval Office listening to the Department of Justice and my White House Counsel as to what I should do with Mr. Nixon’s tapes and papers,” he later said. “I finally decided the only way to spend 100% of my time on the serious problems of the Federal Government and 30 million citizens was to get rid of the time spent on Mr. Nixon’s tapes and papers.”
Ford made the announcement faster than his aides would have preferred. From a public relations perspective, surely nothing was handled correctly. But Ford had made up his mind, and he didn’t want to waste time. The nation needed closure, and it needed it now.
“[The Nixon story] is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part,” Ford told the nation on the morning of September 8. “It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must. . . . [I]t is my duty, not merely to proclaim domestic tranquility but to use every means that I have to insure it.”
The decision most likely cost Ford re-election in 1976, but he would finally be vindicated many decades later. In May 2001, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation presented its Profile in Courage Award to Ford for his “courage in making a controversial decision.”
Ted Kennedy, who had formerly been so critical of the pardon, advocated for the award.
“We now recognize that Ford was there when the country needed him,” Kennedy said. “He was calm and steady at a time of emotional upheaval and disillusionment.”
The country was focused on getting vengeance against Nixon, as an individual. Ford was focused on what was best for the healing and restoration of the nation.
“I have never regretted my decision to pardon Mr. Nixon,” he said in 1995. “It was the right decision when I made it in 1974 and the public today better understands my reasons.”
Andrew Downer Crain, The Ford Presidency: A History (2009)
Editorial, Gerald R. Ford, New York Times (Dec. 28, 2006)
Gerald Ford, Remarks on Signing a Proclamation Granting Pardon to Richard Nixon (Sept. 8, 1974)
Gerald Ford, Proclamation 4311—Granting Pardon to Richard Nixon (Sept. 8, 1974)
James Cannon, Gerald R. Ford: An Honorable Life (2013)
Kennedy Denounces Pardon as ‘Cover-up Culmination’ (St Louis Post-Dispatch; Sept. 13, 1974)
Profile in Courage Award, Award Recipients: Gerald Ford, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Scholastic Network, Online Interview with Former President Gerald R. Ford (February 10, 1995)