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How the Nixon Pardon Strained a Presidential Friendship

In 1974, President Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon before he could be prosecuted in the Watergate scandal shocked the country. It also tested a friendship of some 25 years when Jerald terHorst, Ford’s press secretary and biographer, resigned in protest.

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President Gerald Ford announces in his White House office that he has granted former President Richard M. Nixon "a full, free and absolute pardon" for all "offenses against the United States" during the period of his presidency in this Sept. 8, 1974 file photo. (AP Photo/File)

Thirty-one days into his presidency, Gerald Ford, with the stroke of a pen, granted a full and absolute pardon to his predecessor, Richard Nixon, who had resigned from office on Aug. 9, 1974. It was the only time an American president had pardoned another. And Ford did so as television cameras rolled, minutes after dealing with another resignation -- that of his press secretary and longtime friend, Jerald terHorst.

"He made a blunder on the Nixon pardon," terHorst said during a previously unpublished interview in November 2009. "It wasn't so much that I objected to the pardon as it was that it set one man above the law. We don't do that in our country."

terHorst died last year at age 87. But his lifelong conviction that Ford had overreached reflects the lasting echoes of history's most controversial pardon and highlights a philosophical divide over this unchecked presidential power: Are pardons acts of justice for righting wrongs and healing a nation's wounds? Or do they turn justice on its head by giving special favors to a few?

In 1974, Ford's pardon further shocked a country divided over Nixon's exit amid the ongoing Watergate scandal. It also tested a friendship of some 25 years -- terHorst had met Republican Ford in 1948 while covering his first congressional campaign in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Ford explained the pardon in his 1979 autobiography. Putting a former president on trial, in his view, was not worth the additional national trauma from scrutinizing Nixon's actions, especially when prosecutors already were pursuing Nixon's top aides on Watergate charges.

"Although I respected the tenet that no man should be above the law, public policy demanded that I put Nixon -- and Watergate -- behind us as quickly as possible," Ford wrote. "Being forced to resign the Presidency and live with that humiliation the rest of his life was a severe punishment in itself, the equivalent to serving a jail term."

Some opponents of the pardon immediately suspected there had been a backroom deal between Nixon and his vice president in which Nixon would go free in return for Ford getting his job. When journalist Carl Bernstein heard the news on the radio, he called Bob Woodward, the Washington Post colleague with whom he had broken the Watergate story. "You're not gonna believe it," Bernstein told Woodward. "The son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch!"

terHorst acknowledged that Ford's motive was to scrub the Watergate stain out of the national fabric. But terHorst believed there was something fundamentally amiss. "This was a violation of the oath Ford and I took," he said in the 2009 interview. "We both took the same oath: Uphold the Constitution. We are all under the law. But Nixon got away. How could I defend that?"

In his resignation letter, terHorst cited "the absence of a like decision to grant absolute pardon to the young men who evaded Vietnam military service as a matter of conscience, and the absence of pardons for former aides and associates of Mr. Nixon who have been charged with crimes -- and imprisoned -- stemming from the same Watergate situation."

Ruling for the majority in the 1915 case Burdick v. United States, Supreme Court Justice Joseph McKenna ruled that a pardon "carries an imputation of guilt; acceptance a confession of it." For a time, Ford reportedly carried this excerpt in his wallet. Biographer Douglas Brinkley wrote that the Burdick case "had redefined the whole concept of a pardon. Issuing a pardon did not mean exoneration of the recipient, as most people thought. Instead, a pardon rendered a verdict without a trial -- or punishment. Ford seized on the point."

terHorst, writing in "Gerald Ford and the Future of the Presidency," a biography published just two months after he quit, had argued for more accountability: "How could Ford grant an unconditional pardon to the former President without getting in return a signed ‘confession' of his Watergate participation?"

Some say terHorst's views show a basic misunderstanding of the Constitution. "Setting one man above the law is exactly what the pardon power is all about," said Margaret Colgate Love, who served as the Justice Department's pardon attorney from 1990-97.

"The president may grant a pardon for reasons you don't agree with, and the result may not be acceptable to some or even most people," Love said, "but it is what the power is."

Love noted George H.W. Bush's pardons of participants in the Iran-Contra, arms-for-hostages affair and Ronald Reagan's pardon of Mark Felt, who had been convicted of felony civil-rights violations while a top FBI official. Decades later, Felt was identified as "Deep Throat," Woodward's shadowy, off-the-record source for Watergate stories.

Time has changed Bernstein’s opinion of the Nixon pardon, he told ProPublica. When it happened, he said, he sided with terHorst's decision to walk away from what appeared to be further corruption. Now Bernstein believes Ford did the right thing.

"It turns out it really was a courageous and necessary act," Bernstein said. "Gerald Ford, I think partly by being a member of Congress before he was vice president, understood how necessary it was for the system no longer to be so enmeshed in Watergate in such a way that it would go on for another couple of years."

The Nixon pardon abruptly ended Ford's honeymoon period and shadowed his presidency. Ford narrowly lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election; Ford's efforts to move the country beyond the scandal seemingly had worked against him. Though he and terHorst had publicly split, they spoke shortly before Ford died in 2006. "We were never unhappy with each other," terHorst recalled in the interview. "He went one way, I went the other."

terHorst's view of the pardon stood firm. "I have never changed my mind," he said in 2009. "It was a bad deal then, and it's a bad deal today. Presidents are not exemptions to the law."

James E Reedy

Dec. 13, 2011, 5:04 p.m.

I was with terHorst then and even more so now, having seen the increasing exemption from the law by the elite vis a vis Iran Contra and the current administration wishing to “look forward and not backwards” in refusing to investigate the Bush II administration on torture, spying, etc.

That there is no Pecora Commission today or any bankers serving time is a continuation of the fault free elite owning our government, and it all started with the Ford pardon. Tragic!

Nonsense. TerHorst was playing to media elites of his day. Pardoning Nixon was the right thing to do. Nixon’s crimes are insignifigant campared to those of Clinton and Obama.

I think the Nixon pardon was necessary. Nixon had relented to the republican senators and left office. If he had stayed in and forced an impeachment then a trial would have been appropiate. But Nixon resigned in disgrace and Ford did the best thing for the country. I always think Ford got a little bit of a raw deal. Looking back at his two years there was so much going on at the time.

Michael KADIN

Dec. 14, 2011, 5:54 a.m.

President Nixon did what another president did, he got caught, lying the the people of the United States.This president used his office to have the FBI spy on people, to use the IRS to harm people and used the CIA to spy on people and had US troops go into Cambodia.
He knew of the break in at the democratic headquarters and later used his office to cover up this.
What president Ford did was not right, no president is above the law.

Salvatore DiChristina

Dec. 14, 2011, 8:25 a.m.

Roger Stone says “Nonsense. TerHorst was playing to media elites of his day. Pardoning Nixon was the right thing to do. Nixon’s crimes are insignifigant campared to those of Clinton and Obama”.

Typical rightwing hogwash, Mr. Stone, It is easy to generically accuse Clinton and Obama of significant crimes without detailing just what those crimes were.

Perhaps you forgot Nixon on nationwide TV stating “This President is not a crook”. A coverup is not a crime? Falsifying IRS documents are not crimes? Just wher do you get your sense of justice? Since when are these crimes less significant than the crimes of Clinton and Obama that you fail to delineate. Please don’t give me the Clinton crime of lying under oath about a casual sexual affair. Remember the
House brought impeachment charges against him and Clinton was found innocent. How do we know this? Impeachment charges if upheld by the Senate results in immediate loss of office and all remunerations that go along with that decision. In case you are unaware of historical fact, I do recall Livingston resigning and Newt also. Clinton still receives his presidential pension and all the accoutrements that presidents who serve their full term deserve. Sorry to start your day off on the wrong foot.

I suspect you may approve of enhanced interrogation. A brief history of waterboarding. In the early 1900’s we put Filpinos to death for waterboarding as we did to Japanese waterboarders in WWII. To my knowledge, through the Nam era I do not know nor have I heard of any waterboarding incidents until Bush/Cheney. It has been established by international law, the Geneva Convention, esteemed jurist from all parts of the world that waterboarding is not “enhanced interrogation”, it is torture.

Roger Stone posted:  “Nonsense. TerHorst was playing to media elites of his day. Pardoning Nixon was the right thing to do. Nixon’s crimes are insignifigant campared to those of Clinton and Obama.”

Perhaps the dumbest thing ever posted on propublica, and it certainly wasn’t running unopposed.

“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  They always protect their own and this is why the citizens HATE their elected officials.

Steve Withers

Dec. 14, 2011, 1:26 p.m.

A murderer should be pardoned to save is family further grief and embarrassment. This is the kind of logic Gerald Ford used and it is wrong.

Nixon absolutely should have stood trial and been accountable like every other citizen.

Today we see a pervasive culture of impunity. George W Bush has been allowed to get away with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Clinton also got away with similar crimes for bombing Baghdad claiming Iraqi troops were mobilising on the Saudi border. We know from the French that this was a complete lie. 

Ford was wrong. Presidents - especially Presidents - must not be above the law.

If Clinton would of resigned after getting caught lying under oath for biting into Monica Lewinski’s lip and telling her “you better put some ice on that”...........the American people should be more than assured that he would of been Pardoned too.

What’s all the “race baiting” about white’s getting all the Pardons ? That’s like complaining that ” under educated people make less money….......both are useless statements. I bet maditory random drug testing for Pardon applicants would weed out most those here crying foul.

Applicants with the most information in hand get the Pardons. Of those crying foul most should of already known that they didn’t qualfy to begin with ( Read the Directions). The Pardon Attorny can see through any smoke screen that might be thrown up. If you don’t have all the information and have done your home work while sitting idly by in prison then “too bad for you” why should the Pardon Attorny do all your work and hold your hand too ?

This is why the process is so slow, applicants are “under informed” not becuase of under staffing and lack of over site. If your a “Scandal Monger…......just wait and see what Obama pulls out of his hat when he leaves office, hold the press for that one !!!!!!

If Pardon Applicants would just ‘read and follow the directions” we would be able to shrink that department rather than do follow the Liberal Democrat format and grow the office larger and top heavy.

Ralph Chernoff

Dec. 14, 2011, 4:59 p.m.

Ford’s pardon of Nixon was the most corrupt act in the history of the U.S, presidency. I can think of no more outrageous pardon, not even Clinton’s malodorous pardon of Marc Rich, that even comes close. 

It was, first of all, unconstitutional; Article 2 allows the president to grant pardons to persons who have been already convicted of crimes, not to anyone who might, at some time in the future, be convicted of this, that, or the other, crime. To grant a pardon to someone who has not yet even been indicted, much less convicted, is not only illegal, it is utterly absurd. It violates not only the Constitution but just plain common sense. Ford’s pardon of Nixon was the most flagrant misapplication of the that power imaginable.. 

It was, in addition, a corrupt act. Nixon appointed Ford vice president
after his first VP, Spiro Agnew, was forced to resign when indicted for tax evasion. And he appointed Ford knowing that he himself might be indicted, i.e.,impeached and tried in the Senate, for his Watergate crimes. He appointed Ford because he was 1) a close personal friend, and 2) one of the few Republican politicians who still - after the Watergate investigation had clearly exposed his guilt and his lies - supported him. We will never know whether Ford gave Nixon an explicit promise to pardon him in return for appointing him President of the United States, but we do know that Nixon - being Nixon - would never appoint anyone he couldn’t rely on to repay him for that favor.

Ford’s pardon of Nixon was itself a crime for which he, Ford, should have been impeached and removed from office. But, as one (probably more than one) cynical wit put it, “Well, it was the least he could do for the guy who gave him his job.”

President Nixon won a Presidential Pardon from Ford because he was remorsful not because he got caught and also because he was truely qualfied and followed the pardon directions even the Inspector General agreed with the Pardon. Watergate is a closed book and President Nixon’s crime has been completely forgiven cleared by the Pardon Attorny/The Office of the U.S. President and the American people.

Nixon’s one major indescretion is just a bump in the road if you look at look at his life acheivments compared with the other war ending hero’s who saved countless lives. Ford is a well respected man !

biff Michael Appia

Dec. 15, 2011, 11:45 p.m.

Nixon and cronies should have been sacked for lying continually
that “we are not bombing Cambodia” over & over again.
That agent orange worked out well for us, how’s that DU going.

Mr. Stone.  Would you be so good as to enumerate the ‘crimes’ of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, with specific citations or descriptions not vague statements.  Would you also please explain how these purported ‘crimes’ are worse than a President hiring foreign nationals, directing them to break into the headquarters of a political party with the goal of rigging a national election, keeping a list of enemies targeted for punishment, and using the powers of the executive branch to cover for these acts.