Monday, September 8, 2014

I Beg Your Pardon?

"As we are a nation under God, so I am sworn to uphold our laws with the help of God. And I have sought such guidance and searched my own conscience with special diligence to determine the right thing for me to do with respect to my predecessor in this place, Richard Nixon, and his loyal wife and family. Theirs is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part. 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."

Gerald Ford
Sept. 8, 1974

Many presidents have been known as "His Accidency." It is a label that is generally reserved for those who were elected vice president and then became president after the guy who was at the top of the ticket when the people voted on the matter died. There have been eight presidents who died in office.

Sometimes the voters have been pleased with the accidental president's performance — well, pleased enough to give him a full term on his own. Sometimes they haven't been pleased, and they voted him out. Sometimes the accidental president sees the writing on the wall and decides not to seek a full term.

Gerald Ford was a unique case in American history. He must be the most accidental president of all because he only became vice president when he was appointed to replace the duly elected vice president in the first use of the 25th Amendment to fill a vacancy in the vice presidency. Then, when Richard Nixon resigned, he became president.

Maybe that unique role in American history was liberating for Ford. Maybe he felt he could do things differently than the three dozen men who had occupied the presidency before him precisely because he had not sought the presidency or the vice presidency.

"I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots," he said on the day he took office. A few minutes later, he pledged, "If you have not chosen me by secret ballot, neither have I gained office by any secret promises."

The people believed him, even people who loathed his predecessor. They were willing to give him a chance. He came across as pleasant and sincere. It was a refreshing change. But it didn't last, largely because of what happened 40 years ago today.

It started out as a rather routine late–summer Sunday. Pro football would start its season a week later; college football had kicked things off with a bare–bones schedule the day before. For sports enthusiasts, the only thing of note besides baseball's pennant races was daredevil Evel Knievel's scheduled attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in Idaho in the Skycycle X–2, a steam–powered rocket. He failed in the attempt, suffering some broken bones but nothing major.

But Knievel, who had been the recipient of considerable hype before the attempt, was knocked completely off the front pages. Ford, who had barely been in office a month, announced that he was pardoning his predecessor. The sense of betrayal showed in Ford's approval rating. A week after taking office, Ford's approval rating was 71% — nearly three times Nixon's approval rating when he resigned the week before.

But Ford's approval rating tumbled to 50% after the pardon, and many people — myself included — believe he never recovered politically. There were a few fluctuations, but, for the most part, his approval rating remained in the 40s for the rest of his presidency.

With the pardon, much of the good will that had accompanied Ford into office evaporated.

In the Wall Street Journal, Ken Gormley and David Shribman agree that the nation was "stunned" at the time. That would be impossible to dispute. "Now," they contend, "there's almost universal agreement that Ford was right." Personally, I have mixed feelings on that. Maybe I always will. I have come to believe that there was at least some justification for the pardon. Maybe it did allow the nation to heal. But even Ford must have known that the healing process would be long. The American people had been deceived — a lot — by their presidents for 10 years. They weren't going to be over it in a day or a week or a month or a year — or even two years when Ford would have to face the voters.

I don't know if Ford's pardon of Nixon hastened the nation's healing process, as Ford hoped, but it did resolve a dilemma for his Justice Department.

Memos show officials at Justice were wrestling with Article I, Section 3, Clause 7 of the Constitution, which said that a person removed from office by impeachment and conviction "shall nevertheless be liable to indictment, trial, judgment and punishment, according to the law."

The Constitution, however, said nothing about a president who resigned from office. Ford's pardon effectively ended that discussion.

No comments: