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Another side to the Nixon pardon

Nothing is so readily forgotten as a problem nipped in the bud; we need major occasions of remembrance to even remember that there was a problem. Amid the somewhat strange festivities that followed the death of President Gerald Ford on Dec. 22, we did manage to remember what the problem was that he nipped in the bud - what to do with his predecessor, President Richard Nixon, and the Watergate scandal, which Ford found to be straining the very functionality of the state. So he gave the only president who has ever resigned a blanket pardon and became, in the fullness of time, the secular saint of healing and rehabilitation.

But major problems that are swept under the rug are not forgotten in the same way. About those we develop acute cases of official amnesia. Assuming they really are critical problems and not simply inconveniences, they fester out of mind, mutate in some way and come around on us again in different forms that we don't always recognize. The opportunity Ford abjured worked out in just that way - by sparing Nixon, and (so he thought) the nation, the full brunt of judicial process on the one occasion in U.S. history when it was poised against the office of the presidency, Ford sent a message of more than healing. He sent the message that politicians in high office can expect to get away with their misdeeds. That message remains a major national problem.

But as the days of mourning for the 38th president went by, it became obvious that official amnesia had set in. We were not, as a nation, prepared to think about politicians ''getting away with it.'' We were prepared to emote about Ford the healer. Death before reflection, as the essayist Paul Valery phrased it.

By the end of the ordeal, Ford was no longer what he always seemed to some of us - a competent president who kept a sensible lid on federal spending as an inflationary economy sapped a percentage of every American's paycheck, a statesman of steady bearing as he withdrew the country from Vietnam with no more loss of stature than had already become inevitable, a decent man who proved the indispensable ally of tribes when the time came to pass the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

Now he was more, much more - a healer who had returned a maimed nation to health by pardoning Nixon's Watergate-related conduct.

But 32 years and counting after Ford decided not to force the issue, the country's crying need is to cure those who hold high office of any idea that they can ''get away with it.'' This requires us to dispel some of the official amnesia about what ethical standards were like before politicians learned they could get away with blowing past them, as long as their conduct stayed a whisker within the letter of law.

Prior to Watergate, Nixon almost lost his political career in the 1950s. He saved himself with the famous ''Checkers'' speech, but the point here is that the scandal was over a slush fund, a vanishingly small sum of money by today's standards that was meant to pay Nixon's way around the country as he made speeches on behalf of fellow Republicans. When his soliloquy to Checkers the dog went over well with the public, he got away with defying known ethical standards. Slush funds and black-bag money would remain a part of his approach to government, and now every national politician has a variation on the slush fund that almost felled Nixon.

He ''got away with it'' on a grander scale when Ford handed down his pardon. Ford carried court papers to the end of his days stating that in accepting the pardon, the pardoned one accepts imputation of guilt. But Nixon was never fooled, and no American politician in high office has ever been since. Since the 1974 pardon, they all expect to ''get away with it.''

In 1982, they changed the banking laws in a manner that gave an ungrateful nation the Savings and Loan crisis toward the end of the decade; countless billions of lost dollars later, a few folks went to jail but the politicians got away with it. One of them, Sen. John McCain, held down a roster spot on the Keating Five and still expects to be president.

During that decade, President Reagan indulged, and his advisers strongly recommended, criminal conduct in arranging to pay the contras in Nicaragua with money from weapons sales to Iran - again a few folks went to jail and one fellow attempted suicide, but the high political office-holders had gotten away with it again.

In the 1990s, Congress changed accounting rules in a manner that approved the false valuation of public assets and led to the Enron collapse, ''WorldCon'' and the frank admission that American business as a whole had to be ''grandfathered'' into legality under honest accounting law. Some jail time and a few suicides later, the same old story remains - the political decision-makers had gotten away with it yet again.

We hope for more from the fallout of the ''K Street Project'' that turned Capitol Hill offices and lobbying enclaves into criminal enterprises, and for still more from the threatened reform of the secret slush funds known as ''earmarks.'' But the continuing congressional presence of such refugees from ethics as Sen. Harry Reid, Reps. Dennis Hastert, William Jefferson and John Boehner suggest that getting away with it remains the ethical standard above all others on Capitol Hill.

The countless billions - indeed, almost certainly trillions - of dollars lost to Americans because high politicians have established their right to get away with sly self-enrichment schemes would have built a house for every Indian family, established national health care or educated an entire generation of poor children.

As a president, Ford famously described himself as a Ford and not a Lincoln. With regard to the pardon of Nixon, we can offer another instructive witticism: Ford may not have been a Royce, but he rolls the American people to this day.