Excusing the Executive?
29 December 2006
President Gerald Ford died this week and political commentators went to work
reviewing the highlights of his short two and one half years in office. All
in all, I think it has to be said that he was an honorable man, decent, and
overall admirable. I am no Republican, but, ultimately, President Ford
wasn’t primarily or simply a “Republican” either; he was a fair and moral
man, a man who inherited one of the most dismal situations any president has
ever had thrust upon him and made an attempt to calmly, fairly, mercifully
minimize the inevitable damage that would follow. Arguably, he succeeded as
far as anyone could.
That damage, of course, was the by-product of the dishonorable actions of
President Ford’s predecessor, Richard Milhous Nixon. The damage was as much
spiritual as legal and societal: “more poisonous and deadly than foreign
wars,” as Mr. Ford said of it all. We, as a nation, were stunned to have to
face the undeniable evidence that we had, in the highest office in the land,
a thug, a gangster – “a man with the morals of a used car salesman,” to
quote Hunter S. Thompson.
The entire Nixon administration was filthy and rotten to the core, liars and
lawbreakers to a man – men who sought to rig elections, destroy their
political opponents at all costs. IRS audits were used like blackjacks
against anyone Nixon despised; FBI files swelled with information on people
involved in such “un-American activities” as questioning the ongoing
American involvement in Vietnam, criticizing Mr. Nixon, and generally
exercising free speech in ways Nixon & Co. did not approve of.
Nixon had citizens of the United States – people who had broken no laws, who
were no threat to American security – wiretapped so he could keep track of
their actions for future use against them. And he did this illegally.
For these and other reasons, we are justified in saying the President of the
United States took a long step in the direction of establishing a fascistic
All of this is well known, in detail, should one wish to do the research.
Vice President Agnew wound up resigning because he’d neglected to pay taxes
for awhile. Nixon’s staff were on their way to prison in the wake of
Congressional hearings on the Watergate affair. Gerald Ford was appointed
Vice President and, almost immediately, Nixon was forced out on the spear
point of impeachment. Gerald Ford found himself made President Ford,
president of a suspicious people, an embittered and insulted nation, a land
with a hard eye for governmental power and politicians.
Wounded by disgrace, Nixon left blood in the water; moreover, he was still
floating there, and his political enemies were circling, teeth sharp,
awaiting revenge as much as justice. But, in the end, President Ford made a
fateful decision: He pardoned Richard Milhous Nixon of all his crimes.
He did this out of mercy – mercy on Nixon, yes, but also a perceived mercy
on the entire country. Mr. Ford believed in doing things for the good of the
country, an odd species of politician – an odd sort of man – and after
weighing all things, decided that the country could not get on with the
business of healing while faced with the unbelievable spectacle of an
ex-president forced to defend himself in court against crimes against the
people. It would be a spectacle that promised to last quite a while, perhaps
years, and it would be a fight that would polarize the nation, possibly
America was already starting to fracture in ways that were, even in the 70s,
still relatively new: People who were more committed to ideas and genuine
principles than dogmatically attached to ideologies still held political
offices, and these were people capable of negotiation and compromise. These
were people who, on the whole, were more ready to bend their agendas than
break the country into factions.
But extremists on both sides of the aisle were regularly beginning to make
their way into government, extremists and opportunists who were more than
happy to play on people’s fears of those different than themselves, people
willing to exaggerate every potential risk into an impending disaster in
order to gain power. Men like Gerald Ford were among the last of a
generation of honorable lawmakers and governors in our nation’s history. I
do not for a moment truly believe he decided to pardon Nixon from some
extremist’s loyalty to party – I think he did it to keep Americans from
going at each other’s throats and thus giving power to extremists from
either the Right or Left.
President Ford certainly believed this was the nature of his decision and he
didn’t seem to be the type who lied concerning grave matters. His choice
cost him the ‘76 election and he never repented of having made it.
One wonders in retrospect if President Ford was completely correct: Must we
pardon our president if he is guilty of grave crimes against The
Constitution he swore to uphold, crimes against innocent citizens and
non-citizens? Is a president immune to prosecution on the grounds that, to
bring him before the bench, would be such an emotion-stirring storm that the
good of the country always demands that he receive pardon?
Is a president, de facto and de jure truly above the law or,
at least, beyond its reach? If we touch him will we die?
My gut reaction is one I think many of the Founders would understand: No. No
man is above the law, least of all the executive. Should he be made immune
to prosecution, are we not in some sense making him royalty, invested with
privileges no ordinary person enjoys; and in doing that, aren’t we giving up
on “government by, of, and for the people?”
But I am not so dogmatic that I cannot see how a special circumstance might
arise where we, while not abandoning the principle of equality before the
law, while not abandoning justice, may have to choose to withdraw the threat
of being weighed in the scales. In the name of mercy, a guilty person, even
a disgraced president, may have to be pardoned, in part for his sake, but
also for the sake of the common good.
Some days, the thieves don’t hang. They walk. We have to let them go and
keep a damn good eye on them and their wrecked reputations, all to avoid
greater damage to the people and, perhaps, even our form of government
I’m not happy with that conclusion, but we don’t live in the land of
perfection. Sometimes we do the best we can with what we’re handed and let
history sort out the pieces.
I think President Ford did just that – with no malice and with the hope he
was making the best decision possible, he allowed Nixon to walk. For many
years I thought that was one of the worst rulings ever made by a leader, but
in the long run, it appears he may have done the best thing for the country
and forestalled its present state of decline and collective,
self-destructive “bi-polarization” by a couple of decades. He may have
bought us some time.
I don’t think we used it well, and we punished him for his stand. The
extremists have taken the field for the moment and men and women of the
spiritual caliber of a Gerald Ford seem more rare than gold.
But President Ford can go to his reward as an upright man, a decent man who
did his finest, which is better than most of us will be able to say.
President Ford will be remembered as one of the last people who held that
office who was truly worthy of it.