On this day in 1974 newly-minted President Gerald Ford pardons his disgraced predecessor for any and all crimes related to the Watergate scandal. The reprieve came 31 days after Nixon made his getaway off the south lawn in Marine One.
Congress had accused Nixon of obstruction of justice during the investigation of Watergate, which began in 1972. White House tape recordings revealed that Nixon knew about and possibly authorized the illegal break-in and wiretapping of the Democratic National Committee offices, located in the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. Rather than face impeachment and removal from office, Nixon finally chose to resign after every dirty obstructionist trick in the book failed, and key members of the Senate assured him he would not survive an impeachment trial.
The Nixon pardon was highly controversial. Critics derided the move, and claimed a “corrupt bargain” had been struck between the men: that Ford’s pardon was granted in exchange for Nixon’s resignation, elevating Ford to the presidency. Ford’s first press secretary and close friend Jerald terHorst resigned in protest after the pardon.
The Nixon pardon was clearly the most pivotal moment in the Ford presidency. Historians believe the controversy was perhaps the leading reason Ford lost his re-election bid to obscure peanut-farmer Jimmy Carter in 1976, an observation with which Ford agreed. In an editorial piece, The New York Times stated that the Nixon pardon was a “profoundly unwise, divisive, and unjust act” that in a stroke had destroyed the new president’s “credibility as a man of judgment, candor, and competence.”
The allegations of a secret deal made with Ford, promising a pardon in return for Nixon’s resignation, led Ford to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on October 17, 1974. He was the first sitting President to testify before the House of Representatives since Abraham Lincoln.
Ford’s approval rating dropped from 71% to 50% following the pardon, and despite having over two years of audition time, he was soundly beaten by the one-term Georgia governor, Carter, 297 to 240, losing the White House to Democrats for the first time in 12 years.
With nearly five months to go in the Trump Presidency*, anything could happen. One hopes the white-haired Indiana fellow at Number One Observatory Circle is listening.