President Ford’s statement on pardoning Richard Nixon, 1974

Gerald Ford’s Statement before Subcommittee on Criminal Justice regarding his pardon of Nixon, October 17, 1974. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)In this speech before the Congressional Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, of October 17, 1974, President Gerald Ford explains his decision to pardon former President Richard Nixon for his role in the Watergate scandal. Nixon had resigned on August 9, 1974, and Ford pardoned his disgraced predecessor a month later, on September 8. When Ford appeared before the subcommittee to explain the controversial pardon, he asserted that his purpose in granting it was "to change our national focus. . . to shift our attentions from the pursuit of a fallen President to the pursuit of the urgent needs of a rising nation." Ford noted that while Nixon had not requested the pardon, "the passions generated" by prosecuting him "would seriously disrupt the healing of our country from the great wounds of the past." Ford declared that "the general view of the American people was to spare the former President from a criminal trial" and that sparing Nixon from prosecution would "not cause us to forget the evils of Watergate-type offenses or to forget the lessons we have learned."

A full transcript is available.

Excerpt

My appearance at this hearing of your distinguished Subcommittee of the House Committee on the Judiciary has been looked upon as an unusual historic event - - one that has no firm precedent in the whole history of Presidential relations with the Congress. Yet, I am here not to make history, but to report on history.

The history you are interested in covers so recent a period that it is still not well understood. If, with your assistance, I can make for better understanding of the pardon of our former President, then we can help to achieve the purpose I had for granting the pardon when I did.

That purpose was to change our national focus. I wanted to do all I could to shift our attentions from the pursuit of a fallen President to the pursuit of the urgent needs of a rising nation. Our nation is under the severest of challenges now to employ its full energies and efforts in the pursuit of a sound and growing economy at home and a stable and peaceful world around us.

We would needlessly be diverted from meeting those challenges if we as a people were to remain sharply divided over whether to indict, bring to trial, and punish a former President, who already is condemned to suffer long and deeply in the shame and disgrace brought upon the office he held. Surely, we are not a revengeful people. We have often demonstrated a readiness to feel compassion and to act out of mercy. As a people we have a long record of forgiving even those who have been our country’s most destructive foes.Yet, to forgive is not to forget the lessons of evil in whatever ways evil has operated against us. And certainly the pardon granted the former President will not cause us to forget the evils of Watergate-type offenses or to forget the lessons we have learned that a government which deceives its supporters and treats its opponents as enemies must never, never be tolerated.

Proclamation pardoning Richard Nixon, 1974

Gerald Ford, A Proclamation pardoning Richard Nixon, September 8, 1974. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)"My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over."

Speaking half an hour after Richard Nixon submitted his resignation letter to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on August 9, 1974, and minutes after taking the oath of office, President Gerald Ford began the difficult work of restoring the American people’s confidence in its government, giving a short speech that attempted to put the crisis caused by the Watergate scandal in the past. In addition to declaring an end to the nightmare, President Ford also urged a restoration of "the golden rule in our political process" and asked the public to pray for the Nixon family.

A month later, on September 8, President Ford issued a proclamation granting a "full, free, and absolute pardon" to Nixon extending to any actions he had taken throughout his entire presidency. In a televised address that night, in which he explained that he thought that someone needed to put an end to the Nixon tragedy, he also introduced a conditional amnesty program for Vietnam War draft dodgers. The contrast proved too much for President Ford’s press secretary, who resigned in protest. The American public was also outraged by the pardon to a degree President Ford had not been expecting, and a month later, he voluntarily became the first president to appear before a Congressional committee to explain his decision-making process.

James Cannon, an advisor to President Ford, revealed in a late 2006 New York Times article that President Ford privately justified pardoning Nixon with a 1915 Supreme Court decision, a copy of which he carried in his wallet. Pardons, the Court ruled, implied guilt, and accepting a pardon "is an admission of it."