The Pardon | People & Places | Smithsonian
Chief Justice Warren Burger swears in Gerald R. Ford as the 38th president in 1974. (© Bettmann / CORBIS)

The Pardon

President Gerald R. Ford's priority was to unite a divided nation. The decision that defined his term proved how difficult that would be

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President Richard M. Nixon's resignation created the Ford administration—and left Ford with the excruciating dilemma of whether to intervene in Nixon's legal fate in the Watergate scandal. In the book 31 Days, published this past April, author Barry Werth provides a day-by-day chronicle of how the question took shape, and how Ford—who died December 26 at age 93—arrived at the decision that defined his "accidental" presidency. The following is adapted from the book.

President Gerald R. Ford awoke early that Sunday, September 8, 1974, and took 8 a.m. Holy Communion at St. John's Episcopal Church, the "Church of the Presidents" across Lafayette Square from the White House. He prayed alone, asking, he said later, for "guidance and understanding," in pew 54, where every president since James Madison had worshiped. As he was leaving, reporters asked what he was doing for the rest of that day. "You'll find out soon enough," Ford said.

Back at the White House, he read over his speech—twice. "It is common knowledge that serious allegations and accusations hang like a sword over our former president's head," his speechwriter and top assistant, Robert Hartmann, had written. With a felt-tip marker, Ford inserted "threatening his health as he tries to reshape his life, a great part of which was spent in the service of this country and the mandate of its people." Morning sun slanted through the bulletproof windows along the Rose Garden. Just before ten—about an hour before he was to go in front of the TV cameras—Ford phoned the leaders of Congress to tell them what he was about to do.

Just 11 months before, Ford had decided to quit politics. He was House minority leader then—a likable legislative blocker and Republican Party workhorse—but he foresaw no hope in the reasonably near future of winning a majority that would elect him Speaker. Then Vice President Spiro T. Agnew was forced to resign after pleading no contest to bribery and tax-evasion charges. Congressional Democrats assured President Richard M. Nixon that no one but Ford could win confirmation, so he became vice president. And then the Watergate scandal metastasized, and Nixon resigned.

Thirty days before Ford took his place in the pew where James Madison had worshiped, he had become the only man in history to serve as president without having been elected to national office.

From the first, he faced a nation torn apart after a decade of Vietnam and more than two years of Watergate. With midterm elections less than three months away, and menaced by an angry snarl of problems—inflation, recession, a world energy crisis and a quickening threat of war in the Middle East—Ford's first priority was to bring his countrymen together. An accounting of events leading to his decision to pardon Nixon, based on documents and interviews with some of the surviving participants, suggests how monumentally difficult that would be.

After taking the oath of office on August 9 and asking the American people to "confirm me as president with your prayers," Ford had hit the White House hallways running, meeting with the White House staff, issuing marching orders to the White House economists, taking a round of ambassadorial calls. His newly appointed press secretary, Jerry terHorst, held his first briefing for reporters.

Washington was in a fever of tips, leaks, confabulations and rumors: that Nixon had pardoned himself and all his aides before leaving; that he had spirited the rest of the White House tapes with him to his estate in San Clemente, California. TerHorst told the press he'd been advised that Nixon hadn't issued any pardons, to himself or anyone else.

A reporter asked if Ford would consider issuing a pardon himself.

Ford had been asked the same question at his vice presidential confirmation hearing in the Senate. "I don't think the American people would stand for it," he had answered.

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