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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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The opinion in Burdick v. United States answered, in effect, a query Ford had posed: What does a presidential pardon mean? New York Tribune city editor George Burdick had declined to answer some questions before a federal grand jury about stories he had published—even though President Woodrow Wilson had issued him a blanket pardon for all offenses Burdick "has committed, or may have committed, or taken part in" regarding not only the published articles, but any others the grand jury might ask about. Burdick had refused the pardon because he believed accepting it would constitute an admission of a crime. The Supreme Court agreed, clarifying that a pardon "carries an imputation of guilt; acceptance a confession of it."

Becker believed that he had found in Burdick a rationale for pardoning Richard Nixon that would keep Nixon from being prosecuted yet also carry an admission of guilt, and he began to warm to the idea as a solution to Ford's dilemma. A pardon, unlike amnesty, instructed only that an individual would not be punished. Becker doubted Nixon would do anything that looked as if he were confessing—Haig had said Nixon would never confess or relinquish his claim to his records—but he thought Ford, by offering Nixon a pardon, could place the burden squarely on Nixon to accept or reject it.

The Tuesday following Labor Day, Becker presented his findings to Ford and Buchen in the Oval Office. Ford's power to pardon Nixon—at any time—of crimes he might have committed provided a whip hand that strengthened his resolve and his conviction that the country, despite a new Gallup poll that found 56 percent of Americans in favor of prosecuting Nixon, would support him.

"Look," Buchen said. "If you're going to do this to put Watergate behind you, I think you also ought to let me see how far we can go to get an agreement on the papers and tapes and have that in place at the same time." The attorney general had upheld Nixon's claim to his records; by linking a pardon to the fate of Nixon's materials, Buchen hoped to rescue Ford's leverage.

"Well," Ford said, "if you can get the papers and tapes question settled prior to the pardon, that's fine. Let's get it behind us. But I don't want to condition the pardon on his making an agreement on the papers and tapes, and I don't want you to insist on any particular terms."

With Ford resolved to move quickly ahead, Buchen had to conduct, in utmost secrecy, a three-way negotiation in which he would be discussing two momentous issues—clemency for a former president and the fate of Nixon's records, papers and tapes—with both the special prosecutor and Nixon's lawyer. Jaworski gave no indication he would oppose a pardon. Miller and Nixon agreed to yield a degree of control over Nixon's records to the federal government. It took days to hammer out a statement in which Nixon would accept blame, but by Saturday, September 7, Ford had what he needed. "Once I determine to move," he wrote, "I seldom, if ever, fret."

As he phoned Congressional leaders on Sunday to notify them that he would pardon Nixon later that very morning, one after another of Ford's former colleagues, conservatives and liberals alike, expressed dismay, anger and confusion. In the end their objections shrank mostly to this: it was too soon. Nerves were shot. Ford's urgency seemed imprudent, willful, more a personal statement of his need to make Nixon go away than a judicious act of state. Or else there had been a deal—which would have been another crushing blow.

At 11:01 a.m., Ford faced the TV cameras. "Ladies and gentlemen," he read, his jaw set squarely, "I have come to a decision which I felt I should tell you and all my fellow American citizens as soon as I was certain in my own mind and in my own conscience that it is the right thing to do."

After much reflection and prayer, Ford said, he had come to understand that Nixon's "was an American tragedy in which we have all played a part." He acknowledged that there were no precedents for his action, and said he'd been advised by the special prosecutor's office that bringing Nixon to justice might take a year or more. "Ugly passions would again be aroused," Ford said heavily, "our people again would be polarized in their opinions, and the credibility of our free institutions of government would again be challenged at home and abroad."

Nixon and his family had "suffered enough, and will continue to suffer no matter what I do," Ford said. With that, he read a single-sentence proclamation granting "a full, free and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he...has committed or may have committed or taken part in" during his five and a half years as president. And with a looping left hand, Ford signed the document.

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