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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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Ford swore them all to secrecy, emphasizing that he had not made up his mind. He listed the reasons in favor of granting a pardon: the "degrading spectacle of a former President...in the prisoner's dock"; the pretrial publicity; the press stories that would resurrect "the whole rotten mess of Watergate"; ultimately the possibility that Nixon might be acquitted, or, if he were found guilty, that strong public opinion would arise to keep him out of jail.

None of the group disagreed.

Hartmann challenged Ford's timing—before Ford had a clear chance to establish himself in office. "What everybody believes is that you may pardon Nixon one day," he warned, "but not right away, and not until there have been further legal steps in the case.

"And if you do," Hartmann said, "the professional Nixon haters in the press and in the Congress will go right up the wall. You're going to face a firestorm of angry protest."

Ford acknowledged that there would be criticism but predicted he could survive it. "It'll flare up and die down," he said. "If I wait six months, or a year, there will still be a ‘firestorm' from the Nixon haters....But most Americans will understand."

Hartmann thought sympathy for Nixon would build the longer he was out of office. "It's already begun," he told Ford. "Newsweek says 55 percent of the people think further prosecution should be dropped." Why not wait, he suggested.

"If eventually," Ford asked, "why not now?"

Buchen, too, asked if this were the right time.

"Will there ever be a right time?" Ford replied.

At ford's direction, attorney Benton Becker studied law books all through that Labor Day weekend, immersed unnoticed at the Supreme Court library. One 1915 ruling in particular impressed him.

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