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Postscript to Nixon

September 9, 1974. This morning we heard on the radio that President Ford had pardoned ex-President Nixon for any offenses he might have committed while in office “against the United States.” Immediately afterward came the announcement that Ford’s press secretary and long-time friend J. F. terHorst had quit in protest. So Nixon is home safe at last. Though he may still be liable to prosecution for civil or state offenses, he will never have to answer for anything—were it high treason or forging Treasury bonds—he did during his incumbency in violation of federal statutes. Whatever his crimes, those imputed to him during the impeachment proceedings or others (who knows?) undiscovered and not yet even suspected, he is free for life from federal pursuit. And it looks as if his six associates or accomplices—the men under indictment whose trial was slated for September 30—are home safe too.

The argument most frequently heard against any kind of pardon for him, when that curious possibility began to be discussed, was the unfairness this would work on Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, and company, of whom it could not be claimed, evidently, that they had “suffered enough”—as Ford declared of Nixon—in losing the highest office in the land. But now the force of this logic, originally brought to bear in the insistence that none of the guilty should be immune from punishment, can be seen to turn around suddenly and plead on their behalf. The injustice of their “paying the price,” when the boss has not only been absolved but is drawing large sums from the taxpayers in the form of a pension and travel and office expenses, is bound to be visible to a nation of arguers schooled in points of equity. Should these men be actually tried and condemned, one can expect a furor reminiscent of the Calley case, with them in the piteous role of “scapegoats,” “little fellows,” who were only carrying out orders issued by their commander-in-chief.

On the other hand, if they are not tried, the net effect of Ford’s action yesterday will have been a general absolution for all Watergate criminals still at large, which will be bound to seem unfair to those like Kalmbach, Segretti, McCord, Hunt, Liddy, and the Cubans, who have already been punished by doing time in jail. To restore impartiality, those still behind bars would have to be let out, by proclamation, and some handsome form of compensation—along the lines of Nixon’s severance pay—devised to reimburse them for the time they have served. Magruder, who is reported to be studying theology in prison, will have to close his scriptures and partake in the general amnesty. And what about Nixon’s nemesis, John Dean, who had just started serving his one-to-four-year term when Nixon got his absolution? Ford could reason, I suppose, that Dean alone deserves no compassion and should stay where he is till he too has “suffered enough,” however that measure can be quantified.

Was this Ford’s intention in giving his predecessor an “absolute pardon”—to set in motion a swift-acting process that would end by undoing all the work of Judge Sirica, Archibald Cox, Leon Jaworski, the grand jury, the Supreme Court, the Ervin committee, the House Judiciary Committee, not to mention Frank Wills, the watchman at the Watergate who first gave the alarm, the three cops in the prowl car who answered his summons, the sleuths Woodward and Bernstein of the Washington Post, John Dean himself—everyone, large and small, who contributed to the nation-wide search for truth?

Possibly Ford, befuddled by sentiment, has not yet seen where pardoning Nixon will lead. He is not considered to be bright and in his mental turmoil he may have stumbled on a formula that the cunning Nixon and his associates might have envied for wrapping up the stinking Watergate mess and burying it with a single gesture, in full view of the public, with a stroke of the pen. Yet the emotional speech he made on television yesterday and which we can now study in this morning’s papers seems to testify to a determined intention: “My conscience tells me clearly and certainly that I cannot prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed. My conscience tells me that I, as President, have the constitutional power to firmly shut and seal this book.” In fact the Watergate “chapter” was not closed; much remains (or remained) to be known that, thanks to him, can now never be proven, established in a court of law. He proceeds in the same vein: “There is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part. It can go 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.”

One might ask: why must he? What is his hurry? Whose interest is served in “sealing the book” at this point, before all the evidence has been heard, before Nixon has been brought to trial and subjected to cross-examination, before his co-conspirators have given their version in open court? For that matter, we cannot judge whether or not he ought to be pardoned unless we know what he has done or is supposed to have done, and it is just this information that Ford’s untimely (or timely?) action has permanently sealed off from us.

Ford has been moved to act, he says, by the human interest of Nixon and his family but also by the national interest, to forestall a trial that would cause “prolonged and divisive debate.” Perhaps it would, but one wonders whether that was really what Ford wanted to spare the country. To judge by today’s reactions and by terHorst’s instantaneous resignation, Ford is already stirring up divisive debate not only by the pardon but precisely by the timing of it: a presidential pardon before trial is almost without precedent, except in cases where general amnesty was proclaimed, and lawyers even now are discussing whether such an unheard-of act is within the constitutional powers of the president, whether in fact it does not amount to interference with the judicial process—one of the very counts on which Nixon might have been indicted. It could even (though it doubtless will not) open the door to impeachment proceedings against Ford himself.

Though he may hope, as Nixon did, up to the last apparently, that the storm he has provoked will blow over, at the very least he has suffered an appreciable loss in popularity—that all but universal popularity he bathed in during his first month in office and which was based partly on relief that the hideous struggle was over and partly on the surprised sense (it had been so long) that a normal cheerful mediocrity, instead of an abnormal cheerless one, was occupying the office. Now Nixon’s pardon may cost Ford’s party, which was riding high with him on the wave of elation, votes in the November congressional elections, and even endanger his chances of re-election in far-off 1976.

So why did he do it? Let us start by believing him honest, or reasonably honest, and discard the notion of a deal: Nixon agreeing to go quietly if Ford would agree to give him an unconditional pardon within a stated lapse of time. If Ford was enough of a crook to participate in such a bargain, he would be enough of a crook to welsh on it, should he see fit, when the due date arrived, and deny it had ever existed. No, let us think he was sincere yesterday when he told of wrestling with his conscience, which implies that he was free to make the decision and not bound or influenced by any prior, under-the-table arrangement.

He cannot have been prompted by public opinion, for the polls were running 58 percent against any kind of immunity for Nixon, 33 percent in favor, and 9 percent “Don’t know.” Another possible motive has to do with Jaworski; the special prosecutor. For weeks there has been a story in circulation that Jaworski had something big on Nixon, bigger than anything yet known, and was moving to indict him soon. If the story was true (and no doubt we shall some day know), Ford, in informed by Jaworski of the facts, would have moved fast to protect the ex-president from unseemly exposure, that is, to steal a march on the special prosecutor. This would be understandable in human terms: Ford owed Nixon something—the vice-presidency—and hence might like to spare him, but how this crony behavior could serve the national interest is a mystery.

No evidence of wrong-doing held by Jaworski, no matter how fresh and juicy, could have greatly shocked or disarrayed a nation already stunned, early in the summer, by Nixon’s own publication of the transcripts of some of the tapes of the presidential conversations: even his worst enemies had not expected him and his confederates, when among themselves, to talk like Murder Incorporated. After this, to learn of new gaps, apparently erasures, in the tapes turned over to Judge Sirica, to learn that the Nixon transcripts contained significant omissions and bowdlerizations, discovered by the House Judiciary Committee on listening to the originals, that campaign contribution funds had been diverted by Bebe Rebozo through several bank accounts to buy Pat Nixon a pair of diamond earrings, could cause no surprise and hardly any pain.

All through the summer, right up to his resignation and for weeks after it, if Nixon remained a puzzle or an unknown quantity to his compatriots, it was not for lack of evidence against him but rather because of the wealth of it: reading the transcripts in paper-back, watching the proceedings of the House Judiciary Committee on television, people in America were asking two questions and, so far as I heard, two questions only: why in the world did he make the tapes in the first place and why, when their existence became known, did he not destroy them? The simplest answer—blackmail, in both cases; he made them to blackmail his associates and retained them for the same reason—was not completely satisfying, perhaps because it was simple. *

In contrast to last summer, even Nixon loyalists (not counting the lunatic fringe) no longer disputed the evidence. Their line of defense now was that all politicians were the same, that if you had any transcripts of Johnson, you would hear how dirty he talked, that a Democratic senator’s wife had accepted a fur coat, look at Chappaquiddick, look at Humphrey, and anyway they liked his peace program, he got us out of Vietnam, didn’t he, don’t forget that, and wasn’t he a friend to Israel? Meanwhile their members dwindled. The “silent majority” fell silent, just as, while we watched on television, his die-hard stalwarts on the House Judiciary Committee, aware at last that they had been betrayed by him, quietly faded away.

  1. *

    The possibility that, since the resignation, material on the tapes has been used to blackmail Ford may now, of course, present itself to a number of people’s minds.

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