December 27, 2006

Beg Your Pardon

This 1974 Time Magazine cover story, looking at Gerald Ford's decision to pardon Richard Nixon, makes for fascinating reading. I've never given it much thought, but it is utterly shocking that Ford pardoned Nixon before the ex-president had even been charged with a crime, any crime—a virtually-unprecedented use of the pardon. Not surprisingly, the move provoked a backlash among legal scholars, with the California State Bar Association declaring that the pardon threatened to "undermine" the "American system of justice." Voters weren't thrilled either, apparently.

In the end, "26 months and millions of dollars spent on the painstaking investigation and prosecution of the Watergate crimes were cast aside" to spare Nixon further anguish and, we are told, to "heal the nation's wounds." But Nixon had been responsible for more than merely Watergate, and Ford's pardon cut off a broader inquiry into all of the longstanding abuses of power by Nixon and his associates. It also set an ugly precedent. Various Iran-Contra criminals received their pardons a decade later, and many were eventually allowed to return to government and lead the country down the path of further corruption and war. Had Ford not pardoned Nixon, it's hard to imagine we'd have had Elliott Abrams, John Negroponte, and John Poindexter handling various national security issues over the past six years, at minimum.

One alternative, of course, would be maximum vengeance, in which government officials who commit crimes get the full extent of the law jammed down their throats. Maybe this is too time-consuming, and distracts from other, more pressing matters. Sometimes, though, I tend to think that the current Congress ought take this route anyway, if only so we don't have to see the same shady characters resurface like whack-a-mole heads in the next Republican administration, and the next, and the next.

More: Meanwhile, Alexander Cockburn makes the case that Ford was "America's greatest President." It's all relative, of course.
-- Brad Plumer 10:03 AM || ||