President Ford's Courageous Move: Testifying Before Congress

President Ford's Courageous Move: Testifying Before Congress

By Carl M. Cannon - October 17, 2014

Forty years ago today, Gerald R. Ford made a most extraordinary gesture for a U.S. president: On his own initiative, he testified before Congress on the subject of his pardoning of Richard Nixon.

The power to issue pardons and clemency orders, enshrined in the Constitution, is inviolate. And 31 days into his presidency, Ford employed that prerogative in a way that would compromise his chances of being elected in his own right two years later.

In their re-telling of the Watergate story 40 years after the fact, former Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward have both related Bernstein’s impassioned response upon learning that Ford had issued a preemptive pardon to Nixon.

“That son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch!” Bernstein told his colleague.

He wasn’t the only one who felt that way. The White House switchboard lit up with angry phone calls. Democrats in Congress swiftly passed (utterly symbolic) resolutions calling on the president to refrain from issuing any Watergate pardons until the defendants had been tried, convicted, and their appeals exhausted. Some Democratic House members wondered aloud about whether Ford and Nixon had struck this deal before Ford was chosen as vice president.

No evidence of any such thing has ever emerged. And Ford’s explanation, widely accepted today, never varied: He wanted to put Watergate behind us all and get on with the business of governing the country.

It wasn’t only Democrats who were dismayed by the pardon, however. Jerald terHorst, Ford’s longtime friend and recently appointed White House press secretary, resigned over it, and never changed his mind about doing so.

But this was a minority view, and among those who came around to the realization that Ford had performed a deeply patriotic deed was the indefatigable Washington Post duo.

“It turns out it really was a courageous and necessary act,” Bernstein said recently. “Gerald Ford, I think partly by being a member of Congress before he was vice president, understood how necessary it was for the system no longer to be so enmeshed in Watergate in such a way that it would go on for another couple of years.”

Ford was courageous in another way, too, one that reverberates to our time. After his presidency passed into the history books, presidents of both political parties resumed their reluctance to share their decision-making process with Congress. Not former Michigan congressman Jerry Ford.

On October 17, 1974, President Ford went to Capitol Hill to explain himself to the House Judiciary Committee, a panel dominated by Democrats who’d been appalled by what they’d learned of Nixon’s actions in the White House. (Here, courtesy of C-SPAN, is an excerpt from that testimony.)

In a recent interview with American History TV, presidential scholar Richard Norton Smith explains why Ford was willing to become the first president since Lincoln to testify before a congressional committee:

“This is where 25 years on Capitol Hill played dividends,” Smith noted. “He was comfortable going into that lion’s den.”

Ford gave as good as he got that day, and never wavered in his conviction that he’d done the right thing. Nixon was not prosecuted criminally for his actions during Watergate, but Ford believed he hadn’t gotten away with a thing.

“Although I respected the tenet that no man should be above the law, public policy demanded that I put Nixon -- and Watergate -- behind us as quickly as possible,” Ford wrote in his 1979 autobiography. “Being forced to resign the Presidency and live with that humiliation the rest of his life was a severe punishment in itself, the equivalent to serving a jail term."

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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