40th Anniversary of the Nixon Pardon: The 1976 Election
As the country prepared for the next Presidential election in 1976 Watergate and President Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon in 1974 was still on people’s minds.
Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter repeatedly said he would not make the pardon a campaign issue. “The American people know who pardoned Richard Nixon,” he stated. “They don’t need to have it raised by a candidate.” His running mate didn’t share that view. Vice Presidential nominee Walter Mondale mentioned it in his speech at the Democratic National Convention and continued to bring it up during the campaign.
The Harris Survey confirmed that it was still an issue. In August 1976 poll results showed a 59 to 33 percent majority of voters believed President Ford “was wrong to pardon Richard Nixon.” At the same time, a 52 to 34 percent majority felt that he had acted in the country’s best interests. Based on the data Louis Harris concluded “that any change in public attitudes towards the Nixon pardon could have an immediate impact on the race for the White House.”
Ford’s campaign advisers included a briefing sheet on the pardon in the President’s debate preparation materials. In the first campaign debate he was asked to address why former President Nixon received a full pardon while amnesty for Vietnam draft resisters had been conditional. He stood by both decisions, stating that “the need and necessity for me to concentrate on the problems of the country fully justified the action that I took” in pardoning Nixon.
On November 2, 1976, Jimmy Carter won the election by a slim margin, receiving 50% of the popular vote to President Ford’s 48%. Many believed that the pardon had contributed to President Ford’s defeat, including Betty Ford. “Many people who definitely were for Jerry could not bring themselves to vote for him because he pardoned Nixon,” she later said. One post election analysis of the factors motivating voters’ decisions reported that “seven points of the anti-Ford vote stemmed from Watergate.”
Image: President Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter Meet at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia to Debate Domestic Policy during the First of the Three Ford-Carter Debates, 09/23/1976.
40th Anniversary of the Nixon Pardon: A President, a Pen, a Pardon
On Sunday, September 8, 1974, President Ford attended services at St. John’s Episcopal Church to pray for guidance and understanding before making his announcement to the nation.
In his remarks just before signing the document, he noted that the pardon reflected both his Presidential responsibilities and his personal beliefs:
As President, my primary concern must always be the greatest good of all the people of the United States whose servant I am. As a man, my first consideration is to be true to my own convictions and my own conscience.
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 only I, as President, have the constitutional power to firmly shut and seal this book. 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.
Shortly after the announcement was made former President Nixon released a statement accepting the pardon. Although such a statement wasn’t required President Ford felt it was very significant. According to the precedent set by Burdick v. United States, a pardon “carries an imputation of guilt, acceptance, a confession of it.” By resigning and accepting the pardon Nixon was publicly acknowledging his guilt in the Watergate cover up.
"It was an unbelievable lifting of a burden from my shoulders," President Ford wrote about announcing the pardon. "I felt certain that I had made the right decision, and I was confident that I could now proceed without being harassed by Nixon or his problems any more. I thought I could concentrate 100 percent of my time on the overwhelming problems that faced both me and the country."
The public’s reaction to the announcement, however, quickly proved that the pardon had not settled matters as President Ford had intended.
40th Anniversary of the Nixon Pardon: The Announcement
Ladies and gentlemen, I have come to a decision which I felt I should tell you and all of my fellow American citizens, as soon as I was certain in my own mind and in my own conscience that it is the right thing to do.
At 11:05 a.m. on September 8, 1974, President Ford addressed the nation from the Oval Office to announce his decision to “grant 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.”
Listen to President Ford’s remarks from the White House Communications Agency Audio Recordings of President Gerald R. Ford’s Speeches, Remarks and News Conferences. A transcript is available here.
Image: White House photograph A0627-09.
40th Anniversary of the Nixon Pardon: The Background
Concerned by the number of questions regarding Richard Nixon that came up during his first press conference on August 28, President Ford asked his White House Counsel Phil Buchen to quietly look into legal precedents for Presidential pardons. Benton Becker, a lawyer who had been involved in preparing for Ford’s Vice Presidential confirmation, assisted with the research.
Buchen and Becker consulted numerous sources, including The Federalist and court cases such as Burdick v. United States and Ex parte Garland. In their research they found that a President could issue a pardon before the recipient was formally charged and that the pardon did not have to name a specific crime.
Buchen also sought the opinion of Watergate Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski regarding how long it be before prosecution of former President Nixon could occur as well as how long it might last. In his response written on September 4, Jaworski outlined the “unprecedented” circumstances surrounding the case. He estimated that the situation would “require a delay before selection of a jury is begun of a period from nine months to a year, and perhaps even longer.”
President Ford also talked about the possibility of a pardon with several key aides: Chief of staff Alexander Haig, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and Counsellors Robert Hartmann and Jack Marsh. Due to the sensitivity of the topic the discussions were a closely held secret. After considering all of the research and opinions gathered, on September 7 he made the decision to pardon the former President.
Proclamation 4311, Granting Pardon to Richard Nixon, was typed up and placed in this envelope for President Ford to sign during a special announcement on Sunday, September 8, 1974.
Photographs of the Final Days of the Nixon Administration
View from Marine One of the departure.
Richard and Pat Nixon on the way to the helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House for his final departure. 8/9/74.
The Nixon family dogs wait aboard Air Force One on Nixon’s final day in office. 8/9/74.
Air Force One arrival at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. 8/9/74.
Crowds outside the White House fence. 8/9/74.
President Nixon giving his farewell remarks to the White House staff as family members look on. 8/9/74.
Photographs of the Final Days of the Nixon Administration
President Nixon meets with the Senate leadership. 8/8/74.
President Nixon on the set, preparing to give the resignation speech. 8/8/74.