Richard Ben-Veniste says Nixon pardon was right, but should have been delayed





[The writer, former chief of the Watergate Task Force of the Watergate Special Prosecutor's Office, is a partner in the Washington office of Mayer, Brown, Rowe and Maw.]

Upon taking office as president, Gerald Ford gave reason to believe that any decision regarding a pardon for his predecessor would be made carefully and deliberately. Nineteen days after taking the oath of office, he responded to a press inquiry about a possible Nixon pardon, saying that until any legal process was undertaken it would be "unwise and untimely for me to make any commitment," adding that "until the matter reaches me, I am not going to make any comment during the process of whatever charges are made."

Yet, only 11 days later, Ford reversed course. Citing reasons of national reconciliation, the difficulty Nixon would have in obtaining a fair trial by jury, and the suffering that Nixon and his family had already endured, Ford announced that he had pardoned Richard Nixon for all crimes he committed or "may have committed" while president. The same day, Nixon issued a statement admitting only to "mistakes" and "misjudgments," saying that he "was wrong in not acting more decisively and more forthrightly in dealing with Watergate."

The pardon decision was met with strident criticism by much of the media. The Post equated Ford's pardon to another chapter in the coverup; the New York Times called it "profoundly unwise, divisive and unjust" and "a body blow to [Ford's] credibility." With the benefit of more than 30 years of perspective, the public's view of Ford's decision has softened considerably.

While I do not believe Ford was wrong to pardon Nixon, the timing of the pardon was premature and may have cost Ford the margin of victory in the 1976 election. Had Ford kept to his original plan and allowed time for formal charges to be lodged against Nixon, spelling out the specifics of his culpability, it would have been up to Nixon to either accept the pardon or fight the charges in court. But pardoning Nixon without requiring at least an acknowledgment of responsibility for serious misconduct and for lying to the public left the door open for the spate of revisionist books and articles that followed the resignation.



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