Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Mercy and Politics

Politics and mercy usually don't go together: in a political struggle, an individual, or a party, will often do whatever it takes to win. Among those who rise above such a crass power struggle - among those who are willing to strive for what is good, right, just, and noble - even among this better class of political leaders, who are willing to sacrifice through hard work, and even through suffering losses and setbacks rather than compromise their understanding of what honor demands - even among them, mercy is rare, because mercy sometimes involves both a personal sacrifice and the willingness to compromise justice.

Those who are willing to compromise justice will do so for their own gain; those who are willing to compromise their own gain will do so for justice. Mercy sometimes asks us to compromise both justice and our own gain. 'Forgiveness' is another word for this.

Such mercy is rare enough among ordinary human beings. It is rarer still among politicians. Historian J.F. ter Horst recalls a brief meeting in 1974 with President Gerald Ford. Only a month into Ford's presidency, ter Horst met with Ford in order to submit his letter of resignation. He felt that he could not continue working for an administration which was in the process of issuing a pardon to former President Nixon.

Ford's decision to pardon Nixon was not a pursuit of justice; Nixon was almost certainly guilty of violating some law. The pardon was also not in Ford's personal interest: it was actually a sort of political suicide for Ford, who would stand almost no chance of winning the 1976 election. The pardon was an act of mercy.

In his book about Ford, ter Horst recalls his meeting with Ford about the pardon:

"It was not an easy decision for me to make," he said of his plan to pardon Nixon. "I thought about it a lot and prayed, too." He had just come back from the eight o'clock communion service at St. John's Episcopal Church across Lafayette Park from the White House.

There is a strange dialectic in which mercy, as it trumps justice, and seemingly violates justice, can come to be seen as serving a higher type of justice. If forgiveness is part of justice, and if reconciliation is part of justice, then in violating a lower type of justice, mercy may yet serve a higher type of justice.

"I'm not concerned about the election in 1976 or the politics of it," he said. "I know there will be controversy over this, but it's the right thing to do and that's why I decided to do it now. I hope you can see that." Ford paused, his face somber, his strong profile silhouetted against the sunlit windows.

Ford was knew that he was doing something unpopular: something that would not help his own career. Yet most historians now credit Ford with a good decision. The pardon probably saved the nation from an agonizing trial and conviction which, although it may have served literal justice against Nixon, would have failed to serve a higher sense of justice, and would have shredded the national psyche. Ford, in a very real sense, saved the constitutional structure of our nation.