It was 35 years ago today that Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon.
He claimed that he did so in the best interests of the nation, and perhaps he did. His words certainly gave the impression of a man who wished to move the nation forward.
"[S]omeone must write the end to it," Ford said, arguing that it could take months or years for Nixon to receive a fair trial. "I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must."
And he proceeded to announce the pardon.
As I wrote last month, the pardon may well have cost Ford any chance he had of winning the 1976 election. Within two months of taking office, Ford's approval rating fell from 71% to 50%. In fact, his approval rating seldom reached 50% again during his 2½–year presidency.
It was a baffling time for most Americans, whether they voted for Nixon or not. American politics has seldom seen a politician and his staff descend so deeply into depravity as Nixon and his staff did. A wave of relief seemed to sweep over the nation when Nixon left the White House and Ford took the oath of office.
But that feeling — that, after the years of lies and deceit that first justified the U.S. policies in Vietnam and then accompanied the coverup of the crimes of Watergate, we were finally being told the truth — seemed to dissolve on that Sunday afternoon in September.
Even in exile, Nixon continued to cast a long shadow over American politics. His party took a massive beating in the midterm elections in November 1974, and the mere mention of his name could drive voters into a frenzy in 1976. Jimmy Carter clearly used it to his advantage, frequently referring — in both stump speeches and TV/radio commercials — to the "Nixon–Ford administration."
For Democrats, Nixon was the gift that kept on giving — and Ford was the Santa Claus who left it in their stocking. If Ford had failed to defeat Ronald Reagan for the nomination, Carter may have had more difficulty winning the election. Ford carried the albatross of the pardon with him; Reagan bore no responsibility for that decision.
I have to admit that I have frequently wondered why Ford chose that particular day to make the announcement. The National Football League did not begin its season until the following Sunday — if he had waited a week, his announcement still would have received a lot of attention, but it would have been competing with all the opening day NFL stories.
As it was, the only competition Ford had on Sept. 8, 1974, came from daredevil Evel Knievel, who tried to jump the Snake River Canyon in his Skycycle later that day. When that attempt — which was televised via closed–circuit TV in movie theaters, the era's equivalent of pay–per–view — failed, I'm sure a lot of people wondered who had perpetrated the bigger fraud on the American people, Ford or Knievel.
Well, I don't remember anyone suggesting that Ford had an impeccable sense of timing.
Perhaps Ford did act to spare the nation and his predecessor further anguish. In the long run, maybe that was what he achieved.
But in the short run, I believe he alienated many Americans who were convinced some sort of deal had been made.
And that, I believe, made victory in 1976 impossible for him.