The following post contains several unpublished photos that I took of President Ford before, during, and after the pardon of Richard Nixon forty years ago today.
Sunday, September 8, 1974 started off in a fairly routine fashion for President Gerald R. Ford. He attended St. John's church just across Lafayette Square from the White House, then returned to the White House. What happened after that insured that he would not get a term in his own right as President of the United States. He pardoned Richard Nixon.
Before he publicly announced the pardon President Ford made a series of telephone calls to inform the leaders of the House and Senate what he was going to do. He phoned, (in this order), Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, Speaker of the House Carl Albert, Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, House Majority Leader Tip O'Neill, Attorney General William Saxbe, House Majority Whip John McFall, Vice President-designate Nelson Rockefeller, and Senator Barry Goldwater.
Head speechwriter Robert Hartmann and I were the only ones with President Ford in his private hideaway next to the oval office as he prepared to make the fateful announcement. The president sat by himself and looked over the proclamation. He didn't say anything to either of us. The decision was made, he was ready, and moments later he stood up, a look of resolution on his face, and said, "Let's go."
At 11:16 am in the oval office, President Ford reads the announcement before signing the pardon. At the end of his talk he said,
". . . I, GERALD R. FORD, President of the United States, pursuant to the pardon power conferred upon me by Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution, have granted and by these presents do grant a full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from January 20, 1969 through August 9, 1974. IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this eighth day of September, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and seventy-four, and of the Independence of the United States of America the one hundred and ninety-ninth."
Moments after signing the pardon, President Ford walked down the hallway to the office of Bill Timmons who was head of legislative affairs. Timmons was there fielding calls from members of Congress about the pardon, along with Ford's (and Nixon's) chief of staff Alexander Haig, White House counselor Jack Marsh, and Hartmann. What I found shocking was that almost everyone who called in that morning privately told the president that he had done the right thing, but publicly went out and lambasted him. At that point I had quite a bit to learn about real politics. As usual President Ford took it all in stride, but definitely felt the pressure.
President Ford's approval rating plummeted from 71 to 37 after the Nixon pardon, and he wasn't able to politically recover in order to win a term in his own right. There was a lot of piling on among his fellow pols. Sen. Teddy Kennedy in a speech in Los Angeles after the pardon said, "So we operate under a system of equal justice under the law? Or is there one system for the average citizen, and another for the high and mighty." Ouch. Unfortunately that pretty well reflected what the majority of Americans thought at the time, and Ford's popularity was in the cellar.
By 2001 Senator Kennedy had changed his tune, and along with Caroline Kennedy presented President Ford with the JFK Profile in Courage Award.”‹ The award was created in 1989 by members of President Kennedy's family to honor the fallen president and to recognize and celebrate the quality of political courage that he admired most. "For the scientist, the moment is the Nobel or the Lasker; for the journalist, the Pulitzer; the actor, the Oscar. For those in government, it is the Kennedy." Governor Lowell Weicker
Sen. Kennedy said, "Unlike many of us at the time, President Ford recognized that the nation had to move forward, and could not do so if there was a continuing effort to prosecute former President Nixon. His courage and dedication to our country made it possible for us to begin the process of healing and put the tragedy of Watergate behind us."
Caroline Kennedy, now the ambassador to Japan, while presenting the award to President Ford said, "For more than a quarter century, Gerald Ford proved to the people of Michigan, the Congress, and our nation that politics can be a noble profession. As President, he made a controversial decision of conscience to pardon former president Nixon and end the national trauma of Watergate. In doing so, he placed his love of country ahead of his own political future."
President Ford told me later that the Profile in Courage Award was one of the most important things that ever happened to him. He was very emotional when he talked about it, and a tear ran down his cheek as he recounted the experience.