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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Nixon usually answered about 15 questions at his news conferences. After taking 29, Ford charged back to the Oval Office, seething. Although only eight of the questions had referred to Nixon, and the network summaries had emphasized Ford's statements on the economy, Ford felt besieged, and angry with himself for the confusion he knew his answers would cause. "God damn it," he recalled telling himself, "I am not going to put up with this. Every press conference from now on, regardless of the ground rules, will degenerate into a Q&A on, ‘Am I going to pardon Mr. Nixon?'

"It would come after he was indicted, which he was going to be," he recalled thinking. "It would come after he was convicted, which he was going to be. It would come after his appeals, probably up to the Supreme Court. It was going to be a never-ending process. I said to myself, ‘There must be a way for me to get my attention focused on the major problems before us.'"

By declaring first that he had "asked for prayers for guidance" and then that he wouldn't intervene "until the matter reaches me"—implying he might have to wait until just minutes before Nixon went to prison—Ford had staked out positions utterly at odds with each other. Yet he didn't know any way to avoid it. For him to say Jaworski shouldn't do his duty would be illegal and would undermine the entire Watergate prosecution. How, he wondered as he huddled with his top advisers, could he and the country not be incrementally swallowed by his dilemma?

Ford groped his way toward a firm decision, fighting, as Hartmann wrote, "for a little more time." He delegated someone to research, in secrecy, the scope of his pardon authority.

Soon after Jaworski arrived at work the next day, August 29, Lacovara handed him a confidential memorandum saying the president had placed Jaworski in "an intolerable position." By declaring that he reserved the right to pardon Nixon, yet also citing the special prosecutor's "obligation to take whatever action he sees fit," Ford had forced Jaworski's hand, telling him to make up his mind about—and take the heat for—indicting Nixon. From Lacovara's point of view, Jaworski needed to retaliate in kind.

Lacovara thought that the longer Ford waited to clarify his position, the greater the risk to the government's case against the six defendants in the coverup trial, which was scheduled to start in less than five weeks. "So I said in my memo, if President Ford is seriously considering pardoning President Nixon in order to spare him from criminal prosecution, he ought to make the decision now, as early as possible, before there's an indictment, and before we got onto the eve of trial," he says.

After considering his memo, Lacovara says, Jaworski "went to Haig and said, ‘Not only am I getting pressure to indict, but I'm also getting pressure from my senior staff to have the president—President Ford—fish or cut bait....The president needs to know that this is a call that he's ultimately going to have to make.'"

The next day, august 30, Ford entered the Oval Office and brought in Haig, who sat down across from him. Joining them soon were Hart-mann, Marsh and Philip Buchen, Ford's former law partner in Michigan and one of his most trusted counselors. Ford tamped and lit his pipe thoughtfully. "I'm very much inclined," he announced, "to grant Nixon immunity from further prosecution."

No one spoke.

"Phil, you tell me whether I can do it and how I can do it," he told Buchen. "Research it as thoroughly and as fast as you can, but be discreet. I want no leaks." Ford blamed himself for not having studied the issue more thoroughly before the press conference, and he believed his contradictory answers resulted mainly from his not understanding fully his role and authority. Buchen, having handled sensitive matters for Ford for more than 30 years, understood he wasn't being asked his opinion. "It was my job to go find out how he could do it, rather than whether he should do it," he recalled.


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