This is one in a series of 13 Yahoo News interviews with historians about defining moments in presidential leadership. The interviews were conducted by Andrew Romano, Lisa Belkin and Sam Matthews, and the videos were produced by Sam Matthews.
Journalist Barry Werth, author of “31 Days: The Crisis That Gave Us the Government We Have Today,” spoke to Yahoo News about Gerald Ford’s defining moment of presidential leadership: his pardon of Richard Nixon.
In June of 1972, several burglars were caught breaking into the Democratic national headquarters at the Watergate building in Washington, D.C. They were arrested and charged, and then, in the ensuing months, it became clear that they were working under the auspices of the White House.
Richard Nixon got through the 1972 election without very much being identified with this break-in.
From January 1973 until August 1974, however, there was a series of revelations and bombshells that started to consume the Nixon presidency. It all culminated in his resignation in the summer of 1974.
The question of whether to bring a president or a former president to justice was laying out there in Washington for somebody to take and put up on his back.
Nixon’s successor, former Vice President Gerald Ford, had a tremendous need to get past this, and he did it in the only way that he knew how: He settled it on his own.
It was courageous — but it was also very costly.
As Watergate was coming to a head, and Nixon was preparing to resign, Alexander Haig, Nixon’s chief of staff, went to Ford’s office with a piece of paper that had been prepared by Nixon’s lawyer. Its title was “Permutations for the Option of Resignation.”
There were various ways that Nixon could leave office without being prosecuted. The last three involved pardons. The first was that Nixon would pardon himself and leave; the second was that Nixon would pardon everyone who was being investigated for Watergate, and leave; and the third was that Gerald Ford would ascend to the presidency — and then pardon Richard Nixon.
Ford did not agree to that. As he said later on, “There was no deal because I didn’t accept any deal.” But the fact that he had actually considered this raised awareness all around that it was a possibility.
So Nixon goes out in a blaze. He walks out, gets on the red carpet and goes to the helicopter with Pat, his long-suffering wife, and Gerald Ford and Betty Ford standing beside him.
Ford clutches Betty and says, “We can do this.” And he walks inside and becomes the president of the United States while Nixon’s in the air on his way back to California.
Gerald Ford was a terrific president — for a month.
He was open where Nixon was closed. He appeared to be honest where Nixon appeared to be dishonest. He was accessible, he was human, he was warm.
Ford’s whole approach during his first month was to try to move the country toward the middle. He adopted what somebody else called the “mantle of the presidential center,” and he was wildly successful at this.
He met with the Congressional Black Caucus, which Nixon had refused to do. He met with the congressional women, which Nixon had refused to do.
And the country was wowed and refreshed and optimistic.
Ford was very happy about that. He felt that the country was seeing that he was the right guy to put America back on a solid footing and to bring people together again.
But I don’t think any president has come to the presidency with as many challenges as Ford faced during his first month in office. The White House was in disarray. The economy was in the worst shape that it had been in since the Great Depression. And then there was a very complex array of international crises that he had to deal with. There was almost a war between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus.
He also had to deal with what was going to happen to Nixon. Nixon’s chief aides were about to go to trial. Nixon himself had been named as an unindicted co-conspirator. The grand jury wanted to indict him.
There was clearly a question of whether Nixon could and should be prosecuted. But nobody else in Washington was willing to step forward. Not the special prosecutor, not the grand jury, not Congress.
Ford didn’t have to pardon Nixon — and there were a lot of people around Ford who were urging him not to.
But in the end, Ford had more urgency about resolving this issue than anyone around him. It was a Sunday morning. It was the 31st day of Ford’s presidency. There had been no advance warning. He just went on television and announced that he was going to pardon Richard Nixon of any crimes he may have committed in office.
Now, it’s important to realize that Nixon had not been indicted — he hadn’t been convicted of anything. So this was a carte blanche absolution.
As it turned out, Ford was hasty. He wasn’t political enough in his thinking. He thought the American people would forgive him. And if Nixon had been more apologetic, more contrite, they might have.
But the weakness of Nixon’s admission left Ford hanging out by himself. Gerald Ford was betrayed by Nixon.
Nixon left office with a 25 percent approval rating; a month later, Ford had a 71 percent approval rating.
But when Ford announced the pardon, his approval plummeted, virtually overnight, to under 50 percent. And it never recovered.
Gerald Ford tried harder — probably harder than anyone — to be a good president. But without the trust of the American people, that was an insurmountable challenge.
Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon exemplifies leadership by demonstrating courage. By allowing himself to be the person identified with this dramatic move, he was putting himself in a position where he was shadowed by ambiguity for the rest of his political career. That’s the tragedy.
It took almost 25 years for people who had originally been very critical of the pardon to decide that it really was a courageous act in the best interest of the country.
Ford came into office with such promise — with a deep appreciation for what the American people had been through and what it was going to take for them to heal. In light of how divided we are today, it’s not hard to wish that he had been more successful as a president.
Click below to view the rest of the 13-part series.
Cover thumbnail photo: President Gerald Ford signs Richard Nixon’s pardon in 1974. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images, Wally McNamee/Corbis via Getty Images)