President Bush and History


Mr. Nevin, a doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Virginia, is writing a dissertation on the Nixon Presidency and the politics of public opinion polling.

Will history look favorably on President Bush? Admittedly, things don’t look good.

In April, historian Sean Wilentz told us: “Many historians are now wondering whether Bush . . . will be remembered as the very worst president in all of American history.”

Although historians may be a liberal lot, they are not the only Americans to think that history will judge Bush harshly.

In a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted last month, 54% of Americans said they believed history will show Bush to be a “below average” or “poor” President, while only 25% felt history would render the same verdict on Bill Clinton, the next lowest-ranked President.

Bush says that he isn’t concerned about the judgment of history. He reportedly told Bob Woodward that he didn’t care how history judged his decision to go to war with Iraq since “we’ll all be dead.”

The truth is that Bush, like all Presidents, cares about his place in history. With his decision to send more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq, Bush is gambling that he can not only change the course of the war, but the judgment of history as well.

But before we dismiss Bush’s action or consign his presidency to the dust bin of history, we should pause to think about a president who just passed away: Gerald Ford. Like Bush, Ford believed that his most controversial decision--to pardon Richard Nixon--would be vindicated by history.

And Ford was right.

Ford’s swift and preemptive pardon of Nixon, coming only a month after Nixon resigned his office, before any charges were brought against him, generated great public outcry at the time. Polls showed that less than 35% of Americans approved of the pardon. Many believed the pardon was part of a deal to get Nixon to resign so Ford could become president.

But Ford publicly stated throughout his life that he pardoned Nixon not for his own sake or for Nixon’s, but for the nation’s. He told a House Subcommittee a month after the pardon that “there was no deal, period, under no circumstance” and never wavered from that position. Ford always maintained that he pardoned Nixon because it was the only way to move the country beyond the destructive partisanship and scandal of Watergate.

The contemporaneous evidence, much of it unavailable at the time of the pardon, and the subsequent writings and statements of others in the Ford White House show that Ford did not make a deal with Nixon (although he was probably offered one) and give no grounds for rejecting Ford’s repeated assurances about his reasons for pardoning Nixon.

Historians are still finding documents that support Ford. I recently found one.

An hour before Ford went before the nation on September 8, 1974, to announce his pardon of Nixon, he called various congressional leaders to inform them of the decision. One of the people he call that historic day, Senate Republican Leader Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, a longtime friend from Ford’s days in Congress, made a record of the conversation.

Ford: This is Gerry Ford. I have made a hard and fast decision, and I am going to grant clemency to President Nixon. I hope you approve.

Scott: I believe you are expending a part of your popularity in order to get this whole thing behind us, but I approve, and I’ll support you.

Ford: I have been talking to Jaworski [Leon Jaworski, the second Watergate Special Prosecutor]. He says a trial could not come up for at least a year, proceedings even lasting longer. . . . Whatever may be said, I am convinced that what I am doing is better than putting the country through the alternative.

The revised thinking about the pardon is not an isolated event but rather part of a larger wave of Ford revisionism. In the years since Ford left office, his standing has grown among scholars and journalists, putting the pardon in a more favorable light. Ford’s reputation for decency and integrity and the continued loyalty and affection shown for him by his White House aides stands in sharp contrast to other modern presidents.

The impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton gave us a taste of what a Nixon trial would have been like and convinced many critics that a trial would not have been in the best interests of the country. Nixon, like Clinton, would have vigorously fought the charges brought against him, nourishing partisan rancor and journalistic sensationalism, and dragging the country along with him in the mud.

Today, most Americans believe Ford was right to have pardoned Nixon. A 2002 ABC/ Washington Post poll found that 59% of Americans now support the pardon. This includes some of the most influential and outspoken critics of Ford’s decision: Senator Edward Kennedy, journalist and presidential historian Richard Reeves, and Watergate reporter and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Bob Woodward.

None of this means Bush's recent Iraq decision is the right one, of course, or that it will be vindicated by history. But it does mean that judgments about our Presidents can change dramatically in a short period of time. Historians, especially, should be wary of predicting how George W. Bush will be judged. The past has a future, too, and none of us knows what it will be.

Related Links

  • Rick Shenkman: George Bush's Misplaced Hope that Historians Will Rank Him Higher than His Contemporaries
  • HNN Hot Topics: Where George W. Bush Ranks as President
  • HNN Hot Topics: Gerald Ford, R.I.P.

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    More Comments:

    N. Friedman - 1/28/2007


    Very interesting points, as always.

    Maarja Krusten - 1/27/2007

    Sorry for the typo, Bob Haldeman left his White House position in 1973, not 1974.

    Maarja Krusten - 1/27/2007

    I worked on Nixon's campaign for President as a high school senior in 1968 and voted for him in 1972. I later worked with the Nixon tapes as an employee of the National Archives. I was one of several people whose job it was to see what historical information could be released to the public.

    Here is a link which shows the various categories of information which my colleagues and I used in screening for public release the Watergate tapes and records at the National Archives.
    These give a sense of the scope of Watergate, which, as most of you historians already know, covered more than the initial break in into the Democratic National Headquarters.

    Here is a link which includes transcripts of some of the Watergate trial tapes (some 63 hours of conversation).

    Stanley I. Kutler in 1997 published a book, ABUSE OF POWER, which includes many more transcripts of Watergate tapes. The total number of segments of Watergate related material in the Nixon tapes totals around 200 hours.

    For anyone interested in seeing how the Watergate coverup played out, I also recommend the published version of the diaries of H. R. "Bob" Haldeman, THE HALDEMAN DIARIES: INSIDE THE NIXON WHITE HOUSE. Haldeman served as Nixon's Chief of Staff and was a close advisor to him. His diaries provide a fascinating, contemporaneous look at the Nixon White House.

    Not only did I work with the Nixon tapes as a National Archives' employee during 1976-1990, I also worked with the Haldeman diaries to see which portions could be released. I met Bob Haldeman around 1987 and came to like and respect him. After leaving office in 1974 and being convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in 1975, he seemed to me to be very courageous in taking an unblinking look at his actions in the White House and admitting some responsibility for what went wrong. A very, very smart, fascinating man, someone who seemed to me to be unusually introspective for a man who had held the type of position he once did.

    There are a number of timelines of Watergate, here are two:,2933,158217,00.html

    Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 1/24/2007

    Youngsters should remember the context of the Watergate coverup--the election of 1972. At that point, with America at war in Vietnam, many good citizens would have perjured themselves in order to save the country from a McGovern presidency, and some of them did. Despite an enormous lead held by Nixon that summer, the media was at least as biased as it is now. It was more powerful, and just could have elected George McGovern. That was always in the background--a real and present danger to the nation in the form of a McGovern presidency... By comparison, the Clinton impeachment was a powder puff derby, where everyone was nauseated by the president's abnormal sex drive and outrageous personal behavior, but where very few national consequences were involved. As it turned out fortune smiled on the United States, because there wasn't a Clinton conviction and Gore did not ascend to the White House, where he probably would have prevailed in 2000 had he been an incumbent.

    Jeffery Ewener - 1/23/2007

    President Bush shouldn't take solace in current historical opinion of President Ford. It's not likely that history has rendered its final verdict on Ford's pardon of Nixon, especially considering the history is never finalized.

    In fact, it may not be long before historians start to reassess Ford decision in the light of the catastrophe of the Bush presidency. The pardon of Nixon, it could and may be argued, led to a culture of unaccountability in the Oval Office, enabling subsequent presidents to act with increasing recklessness and diminshing integrity, secure in the likely assumption that, if it all hit the fan, their successor would bail them out.

    Ford's pardon of Nixon set the train rolling which, in George W. Bush, finally went right off the rails.