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

Chief Justice Warren Burger swears in Gerald R. Ford as the 38th president in 1974. (© Bettmann / CORBIS)
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Three days later, the House Judiciary Committee released its final report on Nixon's impeachment. The 528-page document stated unanimously that there was "clear and convincing evidence" that the former president had "condoned, encouraged...directed, coached and personally helped to fabricate perjury" and had abused his power, and should have been removed from office had he not resigned. The House approved the report by a vote of 412 to 3.

Philip Lacovara, Jaworski's counselor in the special prosecutor's office—a Goldwater conservative in a regiment of liberals—was adamant that his boss could not forgo a prosecution, but arguments for a pardon were being made.

Ford's nominee for vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, proclaimed that Nixon had suffered enough, and Nixon lawyer Herbert "Jack" Miller argued that his client could not receive a fair trial in the United States. In a memo to Ford, Nixon's old friend Leonard Garment, still the White House counsel, suggested that Nixon's mental and physical condition couldn't withstand the continued threat of criminal prosecutions and implied that, unless Nixon was pardoned, he might commit suicide. "For it to continue would be to treat him like a geek—a freak show," Garment said. "It was an awful thing to contemplate."

Garment stayed up through the night to write his memo, delivering it on Wednesday, August 28. Unless Ford acted, he wrote, "The national mood of conciliation will diminish; pressure from different sources...will accumulate; the political costs of intervention will become, or in any event seem, prohibitive; and the whole miserable tragedy will be played out to God knows what ugly and wounding conclusion."

Garment urged that Ford announce a pardon at a news conference scheduled for that afternoon.

At 2:30 p.m. that day, all three networks interrupted their broadcasts to carry Ford's news conference live from the packed East Room. Entering briskly, eyes ahead, Ford strode to the lectern, appearing relaxed and comfortable.

"At the outset," he said, "I have a very important and very serious announcement." Absent any prepared text, it was hard to know where he was headed.

"There was a little confusion about the date of this press conference. My wife, Betty, had scheduled her press conference for the same day. Obviously, I had scheduled my press conference for this occasion. So, Betty's was postponed."

Ford's eyes scanned the room. "We worked this out in a calm and orderly way," he said, leaning into his punch line. "She will postpone her press conference until next week, and until then I will be making my own breakfast, my own lunch and my own dinner."

There was light laughter, and then Ford called on Helen Thomas of UPI. "Mr. President," Thomas asked, "aside from the special prosecutor's role, do you agree with the [American] Bar Association that the law applies equally to all men, or do you agree with Governor Rockefeller that former President Nixon should have immunity from prosecution, and specifically, would you use your pardon authority, if necessary?"


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