OTD in History… September 8, 1974, President Gerald Ford pardons former President Richard Nixon for Watergate
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history September 8, 1974, President Gerald Ford took the unpopular initiative of granting a “full free and absolute pardon” to former President Richard Nixon for any offenses he “has committed or may have committed” during the Watergate scandal. A month earlier, Nixon became the first president in history to resign from the office after he lost the support of Republicans in Congress and faced certain impeachment over his involvement to obstruct justice, thwart the investigation and cover-up the Watergate break-in into the Democratic National Committee of June 17, 1972. After the Supreme Court forced Nixon to release the White House tapes of his conversations the “smoking gun” concluded the president had been involved in the cover-up from the beginning. Nixon lost all political capital even after the resignation he faced the possibility of prosecution as had anybody in his administration who had been involved with Watergate and the cover-up.
Ford was the only president to have never been elected even to the vice presidency. Nixon appointed Ford after Spiro T. Agnew resigned less than a year before. Ford assumed the vice presidency on December 6, 1973, after Agnew resigned because he was charged with “tax evasion and money laundering” for accepting bribes as the governor of Maryland. Congressional leaders advised Nixon he should choose the then-House Minority Leader the much-liked Gerald Ford as vice president to which Nixon obliged. Nixon nominated Ford on October 12, on November 27, the Senate confirmed him with a vote of 92 to 3, with three Democrats opposing, while the House confirmed Ford on December 6, 1973, with a vote of 387 to 35.
On August 1, 1974, Nixon’s Chief of Staff Alexander Haig, gave Ford a warning about the “smoking gun” Oval Office tape that could end Nixon’s presidency. Ford later recounted, “Al Haig asked to come over and see me to tell me that there would be a new tape released on a Monday, and he said the evidence in there was devastating and there would probably be either an impeachment or a resignation. And he said, ‘I’m just warning you that you’ve got to be prepared, that things might change dramatically and you could become President.’ And I said, ‘Betty, I don’t think we’re ever going to live in the vice president’s house.’”
The morning of August 9, was emotional for Nixon. In his last hours as president, he delivered a farewell address at 9 am to his cabinet and staff in the East Room, where Ford was also present. Nixon tendered his resignation at 11:35 am to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Gerald and Betty Ford escorted the Nixons to the helicopter before Ford officially assumed office. Technically, Ford became president a minute later but he only took the oath of office five minutes after noon, once Nixon and his family left the White House to return to San Clemente, California. Chief Justice Warren Burger administered Ford the oath of office in the East Room of the White House at 12:05 pm.
On August 9, 1974, Vice President Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as president after Richard Nixon resigns over impending impeachment because of his involvement in the Watergate break-in scandal cover-up. With impeachment from Congress certain, Nixon did the unprecedented, on the evening of August 8, he announced to the American public that he would be resigning effective at noon the next day. On August 9, Vice President Ford would assume the presidency under unprecedented terms prescribed in the 25th Amendment on presidential succession, the first to do so without the American public ever having elected him, and serving the shortest time, 2 years and 164 days.
Immediately afterward, Ford delivered a short 850-word inaugural address, written Counselor to President Robert T. Hartmann, and discussed the “extraordinary circumstances” that led him to the presidency. Ford expressed:
“I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your President by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your President with your prayers. And I hope that such prayers will also be the first of many… If you have not chosen me by secret ballot, neither have I gained office by any secret promises. I have not campaigned either for the Presidency or the Vice Presidency. I have not subscribed to any partisan platform. I am indebted to no man, and only to one woman — my dear wife, Betty — as I begin this very difficult job… My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over… Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule. But there is a higher Power, by whatever name we honor him, who ordains not only righteousness but love, not only justice but mercy.”
Although when Nixon resigned it ended his problems with impeachment, he still faced the possibility of criminal prosecution. Despite speculation to the contrary, Ford claims he did not make an agreement a “corrupt bargain” with Nixon and his Chief of Staff Alexander Haig that he would resign and Ford would pardon him upon ascending to the presidency. In his memoir A Time to Heal Ford recounted about the conversation with Haig, writing, “Haig emphasized that these weren’t his suggestions. He didn’t identify the staff members and he made it very clear that he wasn’t recommending any one option over another. What he wanted to know was whether or not my overall assessment of the situation agreed with his… Next, he asked if I had any suggestions as to courses of actions for the President. I didn’t think it would be proper for me to make any recommendations at all, and I told him so.”
According to Donald Rumsfeld, who served as Ford’s Secretary of Defense in his book When The Center Held: Gerald Ford and the Rescue of the American Presidency Ford had three reasons to pardon Nixon, to stop the nation’s preoccupation with Watergate, Nixon and former First Lady Pat Nixon’s declining health and his friendship with Nixon. As soon as Ford was sworn in Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski’s aides sent the new president a memo about the possibility of prosecuting Nixon. The memo said, “In our view, there is clear evidence that Richard M. Nixon participated in a conspiracy to obstruct justice by concealing the identity of those responsible for the Watergate break-in and other criminal offenses. There is a presumption (which in the past we have operated upon) that Richard M. Nixon, like every citizen, is subject to the rule of law. Accordingly, one begins with the premise that if there is sufficient evidence, Mr. Nixon should be indicted and prosecuted. The question then becomes whether the presumption for proceeding is outweighed by the factors mandating against indictment and prosecution.”
In opposition to a prosecution, the memo argued according to Rumsfeld, “The embarrassment and disgrace associated with resignation would be punishment enough; that prosecution would “aggravate” the nation’s divisions; and that pretrial publicity might make it hard, if not impossible, for Nixon to receive a fair trial.” According to Jaworski, it would take nine months until Nixon would be sent to trial and then the trial would take an “indeterminate” amount of time. At Ford’s first press conference on August 28, the press predominantly asked him about Watergate. Ford decided afterward that finally ending the Watergate scandal would be the only way to continue with the nation’s business and the national preoccupation.
Nixon was also both “mentally and physically” sick from the ordeal and was suffering from another blood clot in his leg, which he would be hospitalized for it in October. A physician called Nixon “a ravaged man who has lost the will to fight.” While historian David Lester said, Pat Nixon “disappeared from public view, secluded behind the high walls and impenetrable trees and shrubbery of the 5.9-acre estate where they had gone to live.” The Nixons were being harassed at their home, and Pat Nixon had to wear disguises just to go out. Rumsfeld pointed out, “To Ford, pardoning Nixon was what he believed was the humanitarian — and the Christian — thing to do.” Ford also told Tip O’Neill, “I’ve made up my mind to pardon Nixon. I’m doing it because I think it is right for the country, and because it feels right in my heart. The man is so depressed, and I don’t want to see a former president go to jail.” (Hamilton, 329)
On Sunday, September 8, just after church services, President Ford addressed the nation for 10-minutes notifying them of his decision to pardon Nixon. Ford believed the pardon and his address would end Watergate and allow the nation to heal. Ford stated, “I have learned already in this office that the difficult decisions always come to this desk. To procrastinate, to agonize and to wait for a more favorable turn of events that may never come or more compelling external pressures that may as well be wrong as right, is itself a decision of sorts and a weak and potentially dangerous course for a president to follow… 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.”
President Ford also released a formal proclamation, “Proclamation 4311 — Granting Pardon to Richard Nixon.” The pardon officially read, “Therefore, I, Gerald R. Ford, President of the United States, pursuant to the pardon power conferred upon me by Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution, have granted and by these presents do grant 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 January 20, 1969 through August 9, 1974.” Ford did not think a pardon exonerated anybody as innocent he believed a pardon implied guilt based on the 1915 Supreme Court case Burdick v. United States which determined a pardon was “imputation of guilt,” and acceptance “an admission of guilt.”
Despite how unpopular it would be Ford’s Administration was the one who initially contacted Nixon about a pardon, with Nixon hesitant to accept. Ford initially wanted a statement of contrition from Nixon, refused to admit any guilt. Ford relented but Nixon decided to issue a statement after the pardon. Nixon expressed in his statement, “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 depth 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.”
The pardon technically ended Watergate but created problems for the fledgling Ford administration. The public and even members of Ford’s close inner circle opposed the move. Friend Jerald terHorst, who was serving as Press Secretary resigned in protest. terHorst was a reporter for the Detroit News who was on a leave of absence writing a biography of Ford when he was tapped for Press Secretary. terHorst felt blindsided and his credibility ruined because he repeatedly told the press Ford would not pardon Nixon and resigned before Ford announced the pardon.
The press equally felt betrayed, the New York Times in an editorial “The Failure of Mr. Ford” called Ford’s pardon, “A profoundly unwise, divisive and unjust act.” The NYT wrote that Ford “could probably have taken no single act of a non‐criminal nature that would have more gravely damaged the credibility of this Government in the eyes of the world and of its own people than this unconscionable act of pardon.” The public also overwhelmingly disapproved, with his approval rating plummeting from 71 percent to 49 percent after the pardon. For the rest of his presidency, the public made “angry calls, heavy and constant” to the White House. The pardon hit the Republicans hard in the 1974-midterm elections where they lost 43 seats in the House of Representatives and three Senate seats. Sam Ervin the Chair of the Senate Watergate Committee said, “President Ford ought to have allowed the legal process to take their course, and not issue a pardon to former President Nixon until he had been indicted, tried and convicted.” (Hamilton, 329)
Additionally, 71 percent of the American public did not believe Ford had been honest surrounding the circumstances of the pardon. The rumors he made a corrupt bargain with Haig continued to plague President Ford and he took the unusual step of testifying to the House Judiciary Committee on October 17, 1974, to defend his decision to pardon Nixon and his conversations with Haig, becoming the first president since Abraham Lincoln to testify to the House. As Rumsfeld observed, “Yet as hard as Ford tried to exorcise the ghost of Watergate, it would continue to linger for the rest of his presidency.”
Ford was the ninth Vice President to take office unexpectedly, the first and only because of a resignation, whereas the rest took office due to the president’s unexpected death, illness or assassination. Ford’s presidency was also the shortest of any president “who did not die in office,” having only served 895 days. Years later, most historians and the public believe Ford had made the right and selfless decision for the country. Historian David McCullough claims Ford was “a very good president” because of the pardon. McCullough remarked, “I think Gerald Ford is one of the most interesting stories in the whole history of the presidency. He made one of the bravest decisions ever as president. From one of the worst moments in presidential history — Nixon’s resignation — came one that many now consider the finest.” The move the most likely cost him any chance of election in the 1976 presidential election but it closed the chapter on Watergate for the nation allowing it to go forward and heal. As historian, Jon Meacham described it “an act of political courage that truly healed the country.”
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Brinkley, Douglas. Gerald R. Ford. New York: Times Books, 2007.
Hamilton, Neil A, and Ian C. Friedman. Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Facts On File, 2010.
Kutler, Stanley I. The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon. New York: Norton, 1992.
Rumsfeld, Donald. When the Center Held: Gerald Ford and the Rescue of the American Presidency. New York: New York Free Press, 2018.
Werth, Barry, and Robertson Dean. 31 Days: [the Crisis That Gave Us the Government We Have Today]. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2007.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education & political journalism.