When Gerald Ford became president minutes after Richard Nixon’s resignation, Ford surprised many of us with how dramatically different he was in the role than his predecessor, starting with his very first Cabinet meeting.
During Nixon’s administration, I had been a member of the Cabinet as counselor to the president, among other roles, and one of the Nixon-led Cabinet meetings still remains vivid in my mind. Fresh from his historic triumph in 1972, in which he’d won 49 out of 50 states, Nixon entered the Cabinet Room to rousing cheers and an extended standing ovation. But rather than enjoying the moment and expressing warm appreciation to his team, Nixon began a meandering yet colorful lecture with seemingly no clear point. He spoke of various British prime ministers and other men he admired, tossing in unusual comments, like, “Richard Nixon doesn’t shoot blanks” and noting that Winston Churchill’s father was a “brilliant man whose career was ruined by syphilis.” Then he mentioned “exhausted volcanoes,” a phrase he said British politician Benjamin Disraeli had used to describe public servants drained of their energy and inspiration.
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As the session ended, Nixon exited the Cabinet Room to far more muted applause and a few confused looks as to exactly what had just transpired, leaving his powerful chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, to promptly—and without preface—ask each of the Cabinet members to tender their resignations in case the president chose to accept them. Moreover, Haldeman asked each Cabinet member to provide summaries of their responsibilities that could be helpful to whoever might replace them. I wasn’t asked to resign but departed the Cabinet later, when Nixon asked me to serve as ambassador to NATO. That was the post I later took on when I came back to Washington right after Nixon’s resignation to help my friend, Ford, with his whirlwind transition.
At his first Cabinet meeting, Ford behaved in a completely opposite fashion of his predecessor. He thanked all of the Cabinet members who were there—each of them were obviously Nixon holdovers—for their service and then said he was counting on them to stay on. Going further to make his point absolutely clear, he said he would not accept any resignations that might be tendered. Of his predecessor, Ford expressed a surprising level of admiration and affection. In his first speech to the nation, he had closed by asking his fellow citizens to pray for Nixon and his family: “May our former president, who brought peace to millions, find it for himself.”
But it was that very question—how to bring peace to the long and bitter political battles of Watergate, which had been tearing the nation apart—that soon dominated the administration. While Ford made clear at his first Cabinet meeting that any talk of a pardon for Nixon should not be discussed publicly, the idea clearly was on his mind. Those of us close enough to observe it ourselves could see how tormented Ford was by the decision. And when he finally made it, it caught many of us by surprise and even led to angry outbursts from people inside the administration, at least one of which I found myself on the receiving end of.
On August 9, 1974, the day Ford had been sworn in, aides to Leon Jaworski, then the special prosecutor in the Watergate case, had drafted a memo weighing the pros and cons of prosecuting Nixon. “In our view,” the memo argued, “there is clear evidence that Richard M. Nixon participated in a conspiracy to obstruct justice by concealing the identity of those responsible for the Watergate break-in and other criminal offenses.” The memo continued: “There is a presumption (which in the past we have operated upon) that Richard M. Nixon, like every citizen, is subject to the rule of law. Accordingly, one begins with the premise that if there is sufficient evidence, Mr. Nixon should be indicted and prosecuted. The question then becomes whether the presumption for proceeding is outweighed by the factors mandating against indictment and prosecution.”
The main arguments the aides cited in favor of Nixon’s arrest, indictment and prosecution were: the “principle of equal justice”; that the country would remain divided without a final disposition of charges; that the lack of action might encourage a future president to commit acts of lawlessness; and that a resignation alone might not be “sufficient retribution” for such criminal offenses. Among the factors cited that weighed against arrest, indictment and prosecution were: that the embarrassment and disgrace associated with resignation would be punishment enough; that prosecution would “aggravate” the nation’s divisions; and that pretrial publicity might make it hard, if not impossible, for Nixon to receive a fair trial.
From the outset, Ford indicated that he was sympathetic to the latter view. He knew a trial of a former president would not only be unprecedented, but also would reopen wounds and divisions over the Watergate scandal. Ford had asked White House counsel Phil Buchen to inquire of Jaworski just how much time a criminal prosecution would take. Jaworski responded that, with various legal considerations, it would be at least nine months before Nixon was even brought to trial. Then the trial itself, if it were to take place, would last an indeterminate amount of time, and could conceivably lead to additional unsavory revelations about the Nixon administration. It would surely be a protracted, drama-filled affair in which there would be very few, if any, “winners.” Also driving Ford were the questions from the members of the media at his first press conference, which had taken place on August 28. Ford had prepared to field a wide variety of questions, from the pending negotiations with the Soviet Union on a nuclear arms agreement to the precarious situation in Cyprus. Instead, his encounter with the White House press corps was dominated by inquiries about Nixon and Watergate. Was this, Ford later asked an aide, what he was going to face every time he met with members of the media?
There was also a human element to consider. Ford, as noted, had made no secret of his sympathy for his longtime friend, who was in declining health, by some reports both mentally and physically. At the White House, we received periodic reports that the former president was despondent over his predicament. Kids were throwing what was euphemistically referred to as “dog dirt”—actually dog excrement—from the beach onto Nixon’s property in San Clemente. Pat Nixon, too, felt under siege in the community. “She disappeared from public view,” noted historian David Lester, “secluded behind the high walls and impenetrable trees and shrubbery of the 5.9-acre estate where they had gone to live.” Ford heard disturbing reports that Mrs. Nixon needed to wear wigs and disguises just to go out shopping. Adding to his problems, Nixon, soon after leaving office, suffered a blood clot in his leg, a painful ailment that he had experienced on other occasions. As his situation deteriorated, a physician who had examined Nixon advised reporters that the former president was “a ravaged man who has lost the will to fight” and characterized his condition as “critical.” Nixon had never been known to pay much attention to his health, Ford, the former football player and excellent athlete, once mentioned to me. As a result, Nixon, who had been a workaholic, didn’t have much reserve to rely on when he needed it. To Ford, pardoning Nixon was what he believed was the humanitarian—and the Christian—thing to do.
On September 8, 1974, Ford delivered a 10-minute address to the nation, which he believed, or at least hoped, would put the Watergate scandal firmly in the past. It was a bit after 11 a.m. and was preceded by Sunday services at St. John’s Church across Lafayette Square from the White House. From behind the Wilson desk and with thick, gold curtains and the leafy South Lawn as the backdrop, the president spoke to the nation in a calm, deliberate tone. “I have learned already in this office that the difficult decisions always come to this desk,” he began. Trying to get ahead of criticism about the timing of the decision—one that came before Nixon had even been charged with a crime—he said, “To procrastinate, to agonize and to wait for a more favorable turn of events that may never come or more compelling external pressures that may as well be wrong as right, is itself a decision of sorts and a weak and potentially dangerous course for a president to follow.” Of the Nixon family, Ford said, “Theirs is an American tragedy, in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that and, if I can, I must.”
In Ford’s mind, Nixon had not gotten off scot-free. Ford had come across a 1915 Supreme Court case, Burdick v. United States, which ruled that a pardon carried an “imputation of guilt,” and, therefore, accepting a pardon was, as such, “an admission of guilt.” For a time, to justify his stunning decision, Ford kept a clipping of the Burdick case’s ruling in his wallet.
At the White House, “angry calls, heavy and constant” began jamming the switchboards. Throughout the rest of Ford’s presidency, fomented by Nixon critics in the media, where they were thick in number, suspicion about the circumstances surrounding the pardon lingered. A whopping 71 percent polled by Time magazine believed then that Ford may not have told the country the whole truth about the circumstances of the pardon.
Many Republicans were angry at Nixon for his role in the Watergate scandal, and for not being truthful or forthcoming with those who had supported him. Had I been in Washington, D.C., and had Ford asked my opinion about a possible pardon, I’m not sure what I would have counseled. That October, after I came back to the White House in my new position as his chief of staff, Ford expressed to me his interest in calling an ailing Nixon, who had been in the hospital. I argued against the call, telling Ford that I understood his sympathy for his predecessor but that Nixon had misled the American people regardless of his concern for what’s right and wrong—and I noted “he had damaged hundreds of human beings by betraying them. Further, he betrayed the goals that all of them were working for.” I said that I personally had felt angry and betrayed. Ford listened carefully to this, and while he might have been caught off guard by my reaction, he certainly understood it.
The president didn’t call Nixon that evening. With his reputation hurt and the credibility of the presidency once again badly damaged, the president’s already formidable hurdles to getting the country back on track became extraordinary. And despite Ford’s completely honorable intentions, the ghosts of Watergate did not depart as easily or quickly as he had hoped.
Ford’s justification for his pardon decision also was coming under continuing scrutiny, buttressed by new reporting. Wildly inaccurate allegations, suspicions and rumors persisted of an alleged secret deal supposedly brokered by Al Haig, whom Ford had since nominated to serve as supreme allied commander in Europe, once he had left his post as White House chief of staff. In one major newspaper, Haig was quoted as warning Ford in late August that a pardon was essential to avoiding “a personal and national tragedy”—an allusion to the possibility of a complete physical breakdown by Nixon. Ford’s former press secretary Jerry terHorst claimed publicly that Ford spent too much time “placating the sensitive feelings” of Haig, who was allegedly pushing for a pardon.
For his part, Haig was justifiably angry that his conduct and integrity were being put into question. Shortly after I succeeded Haig as chief of staff, he telephoned me from his new post in Belgium in a heated mood. “This is going to get dirty,” he said, “and I’ll blow the place wide open if I have to and it’ll be a goddamn bloody mess and no more of these second-rate people around the president are going to challenge my integrity and devotion to my country.”
Haig, who had talked to Nixon regularly since Nixon’s resignation, gave me, and in effect asked me to give Ford, the ominous-sounding warning that “I’ve got Nixon, [Leonard] Garment, [J. Fred] Buzhardt, [Ron] Ziegler and others with me and I’ve got verbatim records and I’ll do it.” I had no idea what he was talking about when he referenced this cast of Nixon advisers and lawyers. My guess was he thought the Ford forces, particularly Bob Hartmann, were trying to hang him out to dry unfairly, and he wanted Ford to know he wasn’t going to put up with it.
Ford had his own view of what Haig might have been concerned about. He told me that when Nixon offered him the vice presidency in the Oval Office, Haig was present and that that meeting was probably taped. He indicated that Nixon had told Ford that John Connally, the former Texas governor whom Nixon deeply admired, would be his choice for the 1976 nomination. In that meeting, Ford apparently had agreed to support Connally, who at the time had become mired in an ethics investigation. The whole discussion, in which Nixon had in effect said another person would be a better candidate for president than the man he’d just picked as vice president, might prove a little embarrassing if it was later revealed publicly.
In any event, I finally said to Haig, “Look, I’ve taken enough of this.” Haig had always been friendly and cordial to me, and I understood he was agitated. I told him bluntly that I didn’t want to get into the subject and that I thought he ought to talk directly to Ford. The unusual outburst from Haig seemed to be a sign of how much the pardon issue still hung, to use Ford’s words, like a dagger over the White House, as well as the considerable stress Haig had been under. To make absolutely clear he had nothing to hide and nothing to apologize for, Ford agreed to the most unusual step of testifying before Congress as a sitting president.
Ford’s bold, continuing efforts to pull his administration out of the Watergate thicket was a lingering frustration for him, particularly in that his new administration faced so many pressing national concerns—foreign crises, arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union and a sluggish economy that had begun to worsen. But he had already made the decision that would place an indelible mark on his presidential legacy, a sacrifice that risked his own future in order to salvage the nation from one of the most painful and divisive periods in our history. Yet as hard as Ford tried to exorcise the ghost of Watergate, it would continue to linger for the rest of his presidency.
WHEN THE CENTER HELD: Gerald Ford and the Rescue of the American Presidency by Donald Rumsfeld. Copyright © 2018 by Donald Rumsfeld. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Published at Sun, 20 May 2018 11:03:16 +0000