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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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Without checking, terHorst said Ford still opposed granting Nixon immunity from prosecution.

"He is not in favor of immunity?" the reporter asked again.

"I can assure you of that," terHorst repeated.

But that question would hang over the Ford presidency for the next month, amplified by a host of Washington powers who had crucial and competing interests in how it would be answered. The Democratic-controlled Congress looked not only toward the midterm elections of 1974 but also toward the presidential election of 1976—and toward an electorate that seemed deeply divided on the question of Nixon's rightful legal fate. The Watergate special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, agonized over the legal and moral consequences for Nixon, and for the coming trial of Watergate conspirators including H. R. "Bob" Haldemann, John Ehrlichman and John Mitchell, three of Nixon's closest aides. The holdover White House chief of staff, Alexander M. Haig, had brokered Nixon's resignation but did not consider the matter closed at that.

In fact, just eight days before the resignation, while still serving Nixon, Haig had urgently visited Ford at his office in the Executive Office Building to tell him that the president planned to step down, and he had presented Ford a handwritten list, prepared by Nixon's special Watergate counsel, Fred Buzhardt, of "permutations for the option of resignation"—ways that Nixon could relinquish the presidency yet avoid indictment. One of them was that, as Ford put it, "Nixon could agree to leave in return for an agreement that the new president—Gerald Ford—would pardon him."

Outraged that Ford hadn't thrown Haig out of his office—there was no way a Ford administration would survive the idea that he had ascended to the presidency as part of a deal—Hartmann and Ford aide Jack Marsh had insisted that Ford phone Haig the next morning to state unambiguously, for the record, and in front of witnesses, that Ford had made no commitments of any kind.

But the question of Nixon's legal status would not go away. And despite all the parties who had a stake in the outcome, Gerald R. Ford ultimately arrived at the answer very much on his own.

Ford was determined to put Watergate in the past, but he was forced into the fray on his second day in office.

Nixon, like every president before him, had laid claim to all his White House tapes and files—950 reels and 46 million pieces of paper. Lawyers in the special prosecutor's office—and defense attorneys in the Watergate coverup trial—believed that those records had to be available to them. After a Ford adviser discovered that some files had already been shipped to Nixon's California estate, the new president ordered that the remainder be kept in White House custody until their legal status could be sorted out.

From there, Watergate entanglements multiplied. Ford, despite his solid support for the Vietnam War, believed that the approximately 50,000 draft resisters and deserters who had left the country were also war victims. On August 19, in a Chicago speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), he proposed a program of "earned re-entry" to bring them home. While the VFW conventioneers greeted the announcement with stony silence, draft exiles in Canada—and, soon enough, others—voiced their suspicion that it was intended as a trade-off for a Nixon pardon.

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