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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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With that pen stroke, Gerald Ford spent almost all that he had gained simply by not being Richard Nixon—the bi- partisan goodwill, the trust and affection of a divided nation that was willing to extend him the benefit of the doubt. Pardoning Nixon when he did, the way that he did, aborted the widespread hope—both shared and promoted by Ford, his team and most of the press—that his candor, decency and courage could clear up the wreckage of Watergate. "His action had quite the opposite effect from that which Ford intended," his biographer John Robert Greene wrote.

TerHorst, his press secretary, resigned in protest. Congress, freed of the necessity of further accommodation toward an unexpectedly popular leader, bolted. The Senate passed a resolution opposing any more Watergate pardons until the defendants had been tried, found guilty and exhausted all their appeals. The House passed two resolutions asking the White House to submit "full and complete information and facts" regarding how the decision was made. In addition to holding hostage Rockefeller's nomination as vice president, prolonging his confirmation until after the elections, Congress rebelled at the agreement for Nixon's tapes and records, perceiving it to be part of a bargain surrounding the pardon. Within months, it passed the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974, directing the National Archives to seize possession and control of Nixon's papers, records and tapes.

As Ford struggled to regain momentum throughout the fall, his clemency plan for Vietnam antiwar exiles fell flat. Less than one-fifth of those eligible signed up for the Vietnam Era Reconciliation Program, announced in mid-September.

On February 21, 1975, Mitchell, Haldemann and Ehrlichman were convicted on various charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury and sentenced to two and a half to eight years in prison. A panel of circuit court judges denied their appeals, ruling that they had received a fair trial despite massive pretrial publicity.

After electoral defeats that fall, Republican conservatives began to criticize Ford openly. By late 1974, California governor Ronald Reagan stopped anguishing publicly about whether he should challenge a sitting president and began attacking Ford's policies in a weekly newspaper column. Ford's loss to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election set the stage for Reagan's victory four years later.

From 31 Days, by Barry Werth. Copyright © 2006 by Barry Werth. Published by Nan A. Talese Books/Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

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