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A profile in courage: What Biden and Trump could learn from Gerald Ford

Mired in investigations as his term came to an unseemly end, a former Republican president is subsequently dogged by the threat of prosecution for conspiracy and obstruction of justice while in office. He courts additional controversy by removing official documents upon his departure from the White House.

His case threatens to distract the country as it confronts recession, inflation, an energy crisis and a series of foreign policy challenges.

That scenario might describe the state of American politics in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency. But it would also be an accurate depiction of the situation in August 1974, when President Gerald R. Ford took office following the resignation of Richard M. Nixon. And it led to a momentous decision.

On Sept. 8, in a televised address to the nation, he pardoned Nixon for any offenses linked to his role in the Watergate cover up.

Ford feared the effect that litigation and a trial of a year or more would have on the nation. “Ugly passions would again be aroused,” Ford said, “our people would again be polarized in their opinions, and the credibility of our free institutions of government would again be challenged at home and abroad.”

The pardon was met with a storm of protest, and the goodwill Ford had generated upon assuming office quickly evaporated. He was accused of making a deal with Nixon, promising him exoneration in advance. But he held firm. He even appeared before the House Judiciary Committee (the first president to do so since Abraham Lincoln) to defend his decision.

“I was absolutely convinced,” he testified in October of that year, ” that if we had had [an] indictment, a trial, a conviction, and anything else that transpired after this that the attention of the President, the Congress and the American people would have been diverted from the problems that we have to solve. And that was the principal reason for my granting of the pardon.”

Ford believed there was legal justification for his decision, one rooted in a 1915 Supreme Court precedent. In Burdick v. United States, the court ruled that a pardon issued by President Woodrow Wilson to a New York newspaper editor carried an “imputation of guilt” and that the acceptance of a pardon was “an admission of guilt” on the part of the accused. While he might avoid conviction in court, Nixon’s implied admission would assure the verdict of history.

Not that the former president would ever admit guilt explicitly. In his statement accepting the pardon, Nixon conceded that “I was wrong in not acting more decisively and more forthrightly in dealing with Watergate,” characterizing his actions as “mistakes.” But in language reminiscent of a consent decree, he would neither admit nor deny any criminal acts.

“I know,” he wrote, “that many fair‐minded people believe that my motivation and actions in the Watergate affair were intentionally self‐serving and illegal. I now understand how my own mistakes and misjudgments have contributed to that belief and seemed to support it. This burden is the heaviest one of all to bear.”

Ford paid a serious price for his action. His press secretary, Jerald terHorst, immediately resigned. His approval rating, according to Gallup, dropped from 71 percent to 50 percent.

By the summer of 1976, as he entered a close reelection race with Jimmy Carter, only 35 percent of Americans approved of the pardon and 55 percent were still opposed. It may well have cost Ford what turned out to be a close election.

With the passage of time, the pardon came to be seen differently. When the question was last posed in a 1986 Gallup survey, 53 percent of the country approved of Ford’s decision, and 39 percent was still opposed.

By May 2001, opinions seemed to come full circle. Caroline Kennedy presented Ford with the John F. Kennedy Library’s Profile in Courage award for making his decision. “In doing so,” she said, “he placed his love of country ahead of his own political future.”

In seconding his niece’s announcement, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said, “I was one of those who spoke out against his action then. But time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we see that President Ford was right. His courage and dedication to our country made it possible for us to begin the process of healing and put the tragedy of Watergate behind us.”

Two days after the pardon, The New York Times editorialized that “a more divisive and distasteful outcome” to the Watergate affair “could scarcely be imagined.” The paper argued that in the absence of a conclusive legal judgment “the way will be open wide for a subsequent demagogic rewriting of history that could poison the political atmosphere for generations to come.”

But looking back half a century later, it is difficult to argue America would have been a better place in the years to follow had the Justice Department pursued Nixon in court.

To quell the ugly passions that have been aroused during the Trump years, and prevent Americans from being further polarized in their opinions (to borrow language from President Ford), would it be too much to ask President Biden to offer a preemptive pardon to Donald Trump for any and all offenses he may have committed, and have the former president even obliquely accept it?

No doubt it would. And even if it came to pass, it would be met with outrage at both ends of the political and media spectrums.

But the investigations of Donald Trump being pursued in Congress and at the Justice Department are doing very little to foster “a process of healing.” We may not conclude it for another 50 years, but we may well be on a course that will “poison the political atmosphere for generations to come.”

Paul C. Atkinson, a former executive at The Wall Street Journal, is a contributing editor of the New York Sun.

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. | All Rights Reserved. Read more from The Hill at

This story was originally published August 29, 2022 2:00 PM.

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