How the Nixon pardon strained a presidential friendship
Ford's longtime friend and press secretary resigned over move
This story was originally published by ProPublica.
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
It was the only time an American president had pardoned another. And Ford did so as television cameras rolled, minutes after dealing with another resignation — that of his press secretary and longtime friend, Jerald terHorst.
"He made a blunder on the Nixon pardon," terHorst said during a previously unpublished interview in November 2009. "It wasn't so much that I objected to the pardon as it was that it set one man above the law. We don't do that in our country."
TerHorst died last year at age 87. But his lifelong conviction that Ford had overreached reflects the lasting echoes of history's most controversial pardon and highlights a philosophical divide over this unchecked presidential power: Are pardons acts of justice for righting wrongs and healing a nation's wounds? Or do they turn justice on its head by giving special favors to a few?
In 1974, Ford's pardon further shocked a country divided over Nixon's exit amid the ongoing Watergate scandal. It also tested a friendship of some 25 years — terHorst had met Republican Ford in 1948 while covering his first congressional campaign in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Ford explained the pardon in his 1979 autobiography. Putting a former president on trial, in his view, was not worth the additional national trauma from scrutinizing Nixon's actions, especially when prosecutors already were pursuing Nixon's top aides on Watergate charges.
"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. "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."
Some opponents of the pardon immediately suspected there had been a backroom deal between Nixon and his vice president in which Nixon would go free in return for Ford getting his job.
When journalist Carl Bernstein heard the news on the radio, he called Bob Woodward, the Washington Post colleague with whom he had broken the Watergate story. "You're not gonna believe it," Bernstein told Woodward. "The son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch!"
TerHorst acknowledged that Ford's motive was to scrub the Watergate stain out of the national fabric. But terHorst believed there was something fundamentally amiss. "This was a violation of the oath Ford and I took," he said in the 2009 interview. "We both took the same oath: Uphold the Constitution. We are all under the law. But Nixon got away. How could I defend that?"
In his resignation letter, terHorst cited "the absence of a like decision to grant absolute pardon to the young men who evaded Vietnam military service as a matter of conscience, and the absence of pardons for former aides and associates of Mr. Nixon who have been charged with crimes — and imprisoned — stemming from the same Watergate situation."
Redefining a pardon
Ruling for the majority in the 1915 case Burdick v. United States, Supreme Court Justice Joseph McKenna ruled that a pardon "carries an imputation of guilt; acceptance a confession of it." For a time, Ford reportedly carried this excerpt in his wallet.
Biographer Douglas Brinkley wrote that the Burdick case "had redefined the whole concept of a pardon. Issuing a pardon did not mean exoneration of the recipient, as most people thought. Instead, a pardon rendered a verdict without a trial — or punishment. Ford seized on the point."
TerHorst, writing in "Gerald Ford and the Future of the Presidency," a biography published just two months after he quit, had argued for more accountability: "How could Ford grant an unconditional pardon to the former President without getting in return a signed 'confession' of his Watergate participation?"
Some say terHorst's views show a basic misunderstanding of the Constitution. "Setting one man above the law is exactly what the pardon power is all about," said Margaret Colgate Love, who served as the Justice Department's pardon attorney from 1990-97.
"The president may grant a pardon for reasons you don't agree with, and the result may not be acceptable to some or even most people," Love said, "but it is what the power is."
Love noted George H.W. Bush's pardons of participants in the Iran-Contra, arms-for-hostages affair and Ronald Reagan's pardon of Mark Felt, who had been convicted of felony civil-rights violations while a top FBI official. Decades later, Felt was identified as "Deep Throat," Woodward's shadowy, off-the-record source for Watergate stories.
Time has changed Bernstein's opinion of the Nixon pardon, he told ProPublica. When it happened, he said, he sided with terHorst's decision to walk away from what appeared to be further corruption. Now Bernstein believes Ford did the right thing.
"It turns out it really was a courageous and necessary act," Bernstein said. "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."
The Nixon pardon abruptly ended Ford's honeymoon period and shadowed his presidency. Ford narrowly lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election; Ford's efforts to move the country beyond the scandal seemingly had worked against him. Though he and terHorst had publicly split, they spoke shortly before Ford died in 2006. "We were never unhappy with each other," terHorst recalled in the interview. "He went one way, I went the other."
TerHorst's view of the pardon stood firm. "I have never changed my mind," he said in 2009. "It was a bad deal then, and it's a bad deal today. Presidents are not exemptions to the law."