Friday, May 4, 2012

Deciding to Pardon Nixon

One of the most controversial political decision in American history was made in 1974, when President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. At the time, most ordinary citizens and most of those in power criticized the action: some felt it cost Ford and the Republican Party too much public support; others thought that Ford's motives may have been dishonest. A few decades later, most scholars and most political scientists praise the wisdom of President Ford's gesture, saying that it was the best way to create closure for the Watergate scandal; most ordinary people now remember Ford as one of our most honest and trustworthy presidents. Historian Barry Werth writes about how Ford made that decision on Sunday, August 11, 1974:

Following a three-minute motorcade to church, the Fords prayed for courage and guidance. "We go to Immanuel-on-the-Hill in Alexandria," Betty wrote in a diary, "where we've been going for twenty-some years. There aren't going to be any more private services in the East Room for a select few." As always during a crisis, the president included among his prayers a favorite verse from Proverbs: Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not into thine own understanding. Ford, an Episcopalian, in times of stress also consulted Reverend Billy Zeoli.

Ford had a personal stability and inner calm which didn't begin when he became president: for many years, he had developed his spirituality. Time magazine writes:

Ford did have a private source of spiritual sustenance, which was in every way different from Nixon's public displays of piety. For years Ford faithfully attended a weekly late-morning prayer session with several friends in the House: John Rhodes of Arizona, Mel Laird of Wisconsin and Al Quie of Minnesota. The sessions, which began in 1967 and continued off and on through 1975, were "very quiet," totally off the record, Ford said.

The final decision to issue a pardon to former President Nixon was still approximately a month away, but it was very present in Ford's mind. A similar topic was some type of pardon or amnesty for those who'd dodged the draft. The link between the two was the concept of forgiveness, a concept central to Ford's faith. Time continues:

It's easier to understand the pardon when you reckon with the prayers. The question of what to do about Nixon landed hard on Ford from moment he was sworn in. Apart from everything else, Nixon was a longtime friend. Ford worried about what putting the disgraced President in prison would do to him, as well as to a country so shaken by the betrayals of those years. Mercy and healing were very much on Ford's mind on Saturday, Aug. 31, when he spent the morning discussing an amnesty plan for Vietnam draft evaders. When the meeting was over, Ford went back to the Oval Office and called evangelist Billy Graham to talk about their mutual friend. "There are many angles to it," Ford said of Nixon's fate. "I'm certainly giving it a lot of thought and prayer." Graham, who was arguing for a pardon, told Ford he was praying for him and, before the two men finished their conversation, Graham recalled, "we had a prayer over the telephone."

Occasionally Ford attended a different church. On the day he announced the pardon, he hadn't gone to the church in Alexandria. The Time article continues:

A week later, on Sunday, Sept. 8, Ford went to St. John's Episcopal Church, directly across Lafayette Square from the White House. He took Communion with some of the 50 other worshipers and knelt in prayer. There was no sermon that morning — at least until Ford delivered one of his own. He went back to the Oval Office, practiced his speech aloud twice, moved to a smaller adjoining office and alerted congressional leaders of his plans. At 11:05, Ford told the nation he was pardoning Nixon in a statement that invoked God's name six times. "The Constitution is the supreme law of our land and it governs our actions as citizens," he said. "Only the laws of God, who governs our consciences, are superior to it. He invited the congregation to think of the Nixon family: "Theirs is an American tragedy," he said. "It could go on and on and on, or someone must write 'The End' to it... Only I can do that. And if I can, I must."

Although Ford's decision to pardon Nixon has been seen as civic wisdom, for President Ford, the matter was less one of politics, and more one of faith. Ford's choice to forgive was not motivated by his party's electoral chances, but rather by his trust in God.