Where have you gone, Gerald Ford?

In 1974, newly-elected President Gerald Ford put what was ultimately best for the nation above is his own personal and political interests when he pardoned his predecessor Richard Nixon for any crimes related to the Watergate scandal. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library 


About a month after Richard Nixon left office in 1974, the new President, Gerald Ford of Michigan, offered Nixon a pardon for any offenses he may have committed while president. Most in the media howled outrage and there were scores of Democratic legislators and even some Republicans who also believed Ford’s actions to be a miscarriage of justice. 

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s crack reporting team and their editor at the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, had uncovered enough evidence to force Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States from office. Nixon’s knowledge of a break-in at the Watergate Hotel, his enemies list, and eventual obstruction of justice could easily have led a jury to convict him of felonies. For those on the American Left, seeing Nixon frog-marched into jail for what he did seemed like delicious irony considering how large a pain he had been to the liberal establishment since the 1940s.

When Ford assumed office on August 9, 1974, he began his presidency with the memorable line to the nation, “Our long national nightmare is over.” The president became reconciler-in-chief, welcomed to the office because he had served in Congress for a quarter-century, had friendships on both sides of the aisle, projected decency, socialized harmoniously, and filled the leadership void that Mr. Nixon had evacuated some months earlier when the investigations surrounding the President became all-consuming. 

Unfortunately, the former president’s legal troubles did not leave him. The matter of what to do with the potential counts facing Nixon came with the job of the new Chief Executive. The charges being written could continue, and the work being done to ensure Nixon’s conviction remain active. Ford had a short period of time to decide and act. He gathered evidence, spoke to advisors, mulled it over, and then decided to pardon Nixon for the sole reason that he believed the nation would be better served with Nixon and his violations in the rearview mirror rather than more trauma for a nation already struggling with doubts after the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, and the recent resignation of its president. 

Almost 50 years later a president, for the first time, faces indictment. There are certainly differences between the two men and between the two cases, but both men lost the presidency and are now out of power. What lies behind the motivation to prosecute Donald Trump? Does a nation already divided need more reasons to split farther apart? Does the case meet the threshold of being worthy of creating greater national tension? Could Joe Biden act in this situation to end the nation’s trauma, or must he stand aside and let justice take its course?

The New York DA, Alvin Bragg, who brought the case against the 45th President, campaigned on the issue of indicting Trump, even though his predecessor, Cyrus Vance had decided to not go forward believing the case lacked evidence if not merit. Trump, loathed in Manhattan, serves as a lightning rod for Democratic prosecutors, Bragg being the latest. 

At worst, Bragg believes he will be rewarded at the ballot box for his bold move and undoubtedly has his eyes on the governorship of New York in 2026 when a very vulnerable Kathy Hocul will try to hold on for a second term. Bragg believes the notoriety of prosecuting Trump will help him unseat Hocul and raise his political star. He has plenty of motivation to move forward with the prosecution but does the case meet the high standard of the law in this matter? Many on both the right and left do not think so. 

There are 34 felonies being traced from one act that did not benefit Mr. Trump other than to protect his wife from the indignity of knowing about his affair. Trump did not gain financially. Certainly one can make a legal case but it looks and smells like a political prosecution. As Rich Lowry of the National Review points out, if Trump had mugged Davis, Bragg’s record indicates he would not have indicted him. This effort to cover up an indiscretion seems to be attracting a lot of attention but providing little in the way of convincing arguments. 

America sits in a precarious spot. Having elected its first African-American president in 2008, by 2016 Mr. Obama had so drained the Democratic Party of seats and power, both federally and in the states, many looked to undo what they believed was excessive government intervention in far too many areas of life. After successive losses with moderate candidates, the GOP turned its eyes to a more belligerent and bold messenger. 

If the Democratic Party had run a less divisive character than Hillary Clinton, maybe Mr. Trump would have lost more than just the popular vote. He won in a squeaker and governed like he had a Reagan landslide. Out of this arose a Leftist narrative that justified relentless investigations into Mr. Trump, efforts to delegitimize his electoral victory and subsequently his presidency. By 2020 the nation became a parody of two neighbours yelling threats and screaming obscenities at one another across the backyard fence.

The problem has only worsened and a litany of developments on both sides could further describe a train wreck turning into an explosive chemical spill threatening everyone. Let’s add another stick of dynamite to the already unstable circumstance and see what kind of effect that has (one wants to turn his head like viewing an unnecessarily gruesome scene). 

At some point the question must be raised, where does the interest of the nation outweigh the petty behaviour of an individual and the hunger for power of a political party? The saturation point may have been reached. In 1974, President Ford thought so, and at personal political risk acted to spare the nation from further tensions. 

Where is our Jerry Ford today? Mr. Biden, God love him, does not enjoy the nimbleness of mind to move boldly. Besides, he does not wear the cloak of a statesman being a long-standing partisan Democratic pol. Perhaps Donald Trump does not deserve to be pardoned, but Biden could influence Democrats across the nation to stand down against a former and potentially future foe for the nation’s highest office. Stop the frivolous pursuit of persecutions that only imperil the faith of the country’s institutions in the eyes of millions of people who voted for Trump or believe the charges bogus. 

Fast forward from 1974 to 2001 and the annual John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award ceremony held at the JFK Library Museum in Columbia Point in Boston. The daughter of the slain President spoke at the ceremony. “For more than a quarter century, Gerald Ford proved to the people of Michigan, the Congress, and our nation that politics can be a noble profession,” said Caroline Kennedy in presenting the Profile in Courage Award to the former president. “As President, he made a controversial decision of conscience to pardon former president Nixon and end the national trauma of Watergate. In doing so, he placed his love of country ahead of his own political future.”

In a nation gone mad, hoping for courageous or selfless actions from the White House seems quaint. But, then again, Jerry Ford, a quaint and humble reminder of the past led as a servant, courageously helping his nation heal itself rather than foster greater torment. With apologies to Simon and Garfunkle, “Where have you gone, Gerald Rudolph Ford?”

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