Nixon's Greatest Trick: Orchestrating His Own Pardon

Oct 9, 2009 - by Don Fulsom - 0 Comments

Aug. 30, 2004 Updated Jan14, 2007

Nixon addressing his cabinet and White House staff prior to his departure, Aug. 9,1974.
Nixon addressing his cabinet and White House staff prior to his departure, Aug. 9,1974.

On the eve of the release of the "smoking-gun tape," President Nixon cut a blanket pardon deal with Vice President Ford that would put Ford in the Oval Office eight days later.

by Don Fulsom

Thirty years ago, President Gerald Ford stunned the nation by granting his crooked predecessor, Richard Nixon, a preemptive blanket pardon for all of his White House crimes. He did so, Ford said, for the good of the country: "My conscience tells me it is my duty, not merely to proclaim domestic tranquility but to use every means that I have to insure it."

The pardon got the ex-president off the legal hook on a host of criminal activities he had ordered, led and/or covered up. The Watergate crimes alone ranged from burglary to campaign sabotage, espionage, and illegal fund-raising, and included efforts to exploit, subvert or pervert the Justice and State Departments, the CIA, the IRS, the FBI and the Secret Service, as well as a wide variety of other assaults on the U.S. Constitution and on the rules of democratic fair play.

Nixon's presidency had unraveled quickly in the summer of 1974. In July, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against him — for obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress. In early August, what became known as the "smoking gun" tape was released. Recorded only a few days after the Watergate break-in, it caught the chief executive and his top aide, Bob Haldeman, devising a plan to block a FBI investigation of the burglary.

After two years of incrementally mounting evidence against him, this was the piece de resistance, the evidence that backed Nixon into his final corner. At that point, the President's few remaining congressional supporters deserted him. In a strained Oval Office meeting, a Republican delegation from Capitol Hill told Nixon he would surely be impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate.

On the evening of Aug. 8, Nixon, speaking from the Oval Office to a spellbound national television audience, announced his decision — unprecedented in the annals of the presidency — to resign. At noon the next day, after Nixon had flown off to California in disgrace, Ford took the oath of office. The Ford proclamation giving "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" came one month later.

From exile in San Clemente, Nixon grabbed the pardon with alacrity. Though its acceptance was tantamount to an admission of guilt, Nixon nonetheless still refused to confess, saying only: "I was wrong in not acting more decisively and more forthrightly in dealing with Watergate, particularly when it reached the stage of judicial proceedings and grew from a political scandal into a national tragedy."

To accompany the pardon, Ford announced he was giving the former president ultimate control over all his White House papers and tapes. And the new President asked Congress to fork over $800,000 to Nixon for transitional expenses. While outraged lawmakers were powerless to override a presidential pardon, they immediately blocked the Ford-Nixon tape accord, and slashed Ford's request for the transition funds to $200,000.

While the pardon and the sweetness of the deal shocked most Americans, former President Nixon was not the least bit surprised. He had not only anticipated the move that would free him from possible prosecution; he had played a major hand in arranging it. From what is now known of the secret maneuvering that went on behind the walls of the crumbling Nixon White House, it is perfectly clear that the idea of a pardon originated with Nixon, not Ford, and was broached to Ford even before Nixon stepped down.

The Watergate investigation picked up an excruciating intensity for President Nixon during the summer of 1974, and, as more and more Watergaters were indicted or convicted (in the end, 40 Nixon Administration officials were either indicted or jailed for Watergate crimes), the mastermind of the cover-up feared his own prosecution. And for good reason.

Behind the scenes, Watergate grand jury foreman Vladimir Pregelj had written to Nixon asking for his testimony. Nixon's chief defense lawyer, James St. Clair, had quickly said no, that Nixon would only answer written questions or sit down alone with the special prosecutor — offers that were rejected by the grand jury. (Years later, in 1982, ABC News would reveal that all 19 Watergate grand jurors had voted in a straw vote to name Nixon a co-conspirator, but that Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski wouldn't go along with them. The jurors settled on secretly naming Nixon an "unindicted co-conspirator.")

There was no telling what the grand jury might do once Nixon departed the safety of the Oval Office, and there was evidence that Nixon was aware of precisely what the grand jury was doing, because he was being clandestinely clued in on its activities. On a Watergate tape not released until 1997, he is overheard saying he regularly received cover-up information and advice from the Justice Department's top Watergate investigator, Henry Petersen. Nixon said he heavily relied on this inside intelligence, declaring, ''I didn't make a move without Henry Petersen from the time of April 15th (1973). I talked to him all the way through.'' Nixon's revelation came in a June 5, 1973 conversation with his Watergate lawyer, Fred Buzhardt.

On the very day Nixon resigned, a confidential memo to Leon Jaworski from two of his top prosecutors suggested just how close Nixon came to being indicted and prosecuted: "In our view there is clear evidence that Richard Nixon participated in a conspiracy to obstruct justice by concealing the identity" of those responsible for the scandal. The memo contained five arguments for, and five against, indicting Nixon. The No. 1 reason for an indictment was: "The principle of equal justice under the law requires that every person, no matter what his past position or office, answer to the criminal justice system for his past offenses." The top reason against indictment seemed far less compelling: that Nixon's resignation was punishment enough.

Eager to avoid the risk of winding up in a federal penitentiary (even though he had once self-pityingly told Alexander Haig: "Some of the best writing is done from prison"), Nixon dispatched Haig to Vice President Ford's office on Aug. 1st — the eve of the release of "the smoking gun" tape — to raise the prospect of a pardon with Ford. The President realized the tape's contents would spark a revolt among congressional Republicans and doom his chances of survival. Despite repeated assertions that "I'm not a quitter," he knew a quick exit was in order. Nixon also knew a pardon would allow him get to keep his fat congressional, vice presidential and presidential pensions. He would also gain taxpayer money for an office and staff — and be provided with Secret Service protection — for the rest of his life. To stay and fight would be to face the certainty of congressional impeachment, conviction, and expulsion without any golden parachute or perks.

Haig told Ford it looked as though Nixon would soon step down, and asked whether Ford was ready to assume the presidency. Haig then raised questions about whether Nixon should pardon himself before resigning, whether others should be pardoned at the same time, or whether Ford should give Nixon a pardon if he resigned. Ford later acknowledged Haig specifically suggested "Nixon could agree to leave in return for an agreement that the new President, Gerald Ford, would pardon him."

Ford aide Robert Hartmann reported in his 1980 book Palace Politics that, after discussing the matter with his wife, the vice president made a post-midnight phone call to Haig, saying: "They should do whatever they decided to do; it was all right with me." (Ford insists Haig initiated the call and claims he told the presidential aide: "We can't get involved in the White House decision-making.")

In his 1999 book Shadow, star Washington Post Watergate reporter Bob Woodward revealed that Haig also used the Aug. 1st meeting to deliver to Ford two sheets of yellow legal paper that had been prepared by Fred Buzhardt: "The first sheet contained a handwritten summary of a president's legal authority to pardon. The second sheet was a draft pardon form that only needed Ford's signature and Nixon's name to make it legal."

In their memoirs, or in interviews with reporters, several top Nixon aides have since weighed in on the Haig-Ford discussions. Bryce Harlow found it "inconceivable" Haig was not carrying out a mission for Nixon. Charles Colson concluded that Haig had "negotiated" with Ford over the pardon. John Ehrlichman said, "I'd bet that Jerry Ford promised to pardon Richard Nixon, and that the promise was made before Nixon's resignation." And Alexander Butterfield suggested that Ford (who, as House GOP leader, had been instrumental in shutting down the initial House Watergate probe) would gladly do such a favor for Nixon: "Nixon had Ford totally under his thumb. He was a tool of the Nixon administration — like a puppy dog. They used him when they had to — wind him up and he'd go 'Arf, Arf.'"

The true coziness of the Nixon-Ford relationship was not known until Ford's death in late 2006. It was also not discovered until then that Ford had made a firm pre-resignation pledge to Nixon to do "anything, under any circumstances" to aid the beleaguered president.

After Ford's death, the Washington Post's Bob Woodward disclosed that Nixon and Ford had successfully kept a big secret: They'd been tight pals – going back to their first days in Congress in the 1940s, right up until Nixon's death in 1994. Ford described himself as Nixon's "only real friend." And he put the pardon in an entirely new light: "I looked upon (Nixon) as my personal friend. And I always treasured our relationship. And I had no hesitancy about granting the pardon, because I felt that we had this relationship and that I didn't want to see my real friend have the stigma." This is a far cry from the high-minded explanation Ford had publicly given in 1974 – that the pardon was designed to insure domestic tranquility and to heal the wounds of Watergate.

A telling Nixon White House tape also became public at the time of Ford's death. In a May 1, 1973 conversation, Congressman Ford is overheard consoling a self-pitying, drunk-sounding, Watergate-embattled President Nixon: "Anytime you want me to do anything, under any circumstances, you give me a call, Mr. President. We'll stand by you morning, noon and night." Of course, this was a Ford offer that Nixon could not turn down when the time came to arrange his own escape from any legal consequences of Watergate.

Hartmann is convinced Haig reported to Nixon on his pre-resignation talks with Ford, and that "Nixon believed he had a deal." And investigative reporters Clark Mollenhoff and Seymour Hersh have made convincing cases that a secret Nixon-Ford pardon agreement was reached before Nixon stepped down. Hersh even contends that, shortly after the Aug. 9 resignation, an angry Nixon telephoned the new President with a threat to disclose the deal unless Ford issued a speedy pardon.

During this same period, according to The Washington Post, Ford got a memo from Nixon counsel Len Garment saying the ex-president's mental and physical condition could not withstand the continued threat of criminal prosecution. The memo implied that, unless he was pardoned, Nixon might kill himself. (Nixon's psychiatrist later observed that his patient was too narcissistic to commit suicide.)

A draft pardon statement accompanied Garment's memo for the new President. Written by Nixon speechwriter Ray Price, it proposed Ford say that "because, realistically speaking, there is no way that (Nixon) could be given a fair trial by an unbiased jury … I believe his case can be separated from those of the other Watergate defendants."

Ironically, the only evidence disputing the fact that Nixon's pardon was Nixon's idea came in a newspaper headline five years ago, reading: "Nixon Spurned Pardon at First." Run by the Associated Press, the story referred to an uncorroborated claim made at an academic forum in Pittsburgh by Nixon's longtime post-resignation lawyer, Jack Miller. Miller asserted that the ex-president initially didn't want Ford's pardon: "He felt that if he had done something wrong, let him be indicted and go to trial." But the lawyer said he eventually got Nixon to accept clemency by persuading him he could not get a fair trial.

Nixon must have put on a pretty convincing act for Miller. But the assertion is one that even Nixon — during his lengthy post-resignation career as Revisionist-in-Chief — never had the audacity to press. Would one of America's most calculating and self-protective politicians — while in deep potential danger with the law — seriously consider turning down a get-out-of-jail-free card, a card he had cleverly designed and then sneaked into play from up his own sleeve? Not a chance.

For many who had watched the great "Tricky Dick" resurrect himself politically so many times in the past, the newspaper headline—coming as it did, 25 years after the Nixon Pardon and five years after Nixon's death—was a chilling reminder that if anyone could perfect the art of spinning from the grave, it would be Richard Nixon.


Don Fulsom covered the Nixon and Ford presidencies for United Press International. He has written about Nixon and Watergate for Esquire, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles and Regardie's.

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