Blogs > HNN > Mea Culpa: Ford's Pardon

Feb 14, 2007 12:25 pm

Mea Culpa: Ford's Pardon

You are probably well past the point of finding the discussion of Ford's pardon of Nixon tiresome.

But one thing has been bothering me. Neither I nor any of the commentators I saw on television during FORD FUNERAL WEEK plainly stated how unusual the circumstances of Ford's courageous pardon were. Usually, a president taking an unpopular stand is taking it with the full backing of elites. Not this time. Elite opinion as well as the public's opinion was generally opposed to a pardon. President Ford was challenging both elite opinion and the public's opinion.

That took guts.

Why do I feel badly that I didn't make this point?

Because there was a teaching moment here and I missed it. The teaching moment was to explain that public opinion--the opinion of the much vaunted, never wrong, always wise American People--often is plain wrong. Leadership often consists in bucking public opinion.

It's LBJ bucking the racists in signing civil rights legislation. It's Jimmy Carter cutting a deal to "give away" the Panama Canal. It's George Bush I and Bill Clinton increasing taxes to reduce the deficit.

Ford got lucky. He managed to hit upon a policy that looks relatively good in retrospect even though both elites and the masses opposed it.

That's a point I should have made at the time when the public was paying attention. The public needs to be told that it is often wrong. It's bad enough that pols refuse to be blunt. When those in the media refuse as well our democracy suffers. To paraphrase, the public needs to be given the truth about their own subpar performance and given it good and hard.

Reservations to my own generalizations above:

1. How courageous was Ford? Ford didn't realize the pardon would be quite as unpopular as it turned out to be, so we shouldn't set this act down as the pure act of courage it's sometimes made out to be.

2. The pardon, however meritorious, was carried out so clumsily that it reinforced the cynical mood of the public. This was a blunder.

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More Comments:

HNN - 2/18/2007

Hi Oscar.

Good point!

Tim Lacy - 2/16/2007

Rick: I totally agree with you on the absurd attention paid to stories about Anna Nicole Smith. It was either a sad reflection on reader demand, or collective instance of poor judgment on the part of editors and publishers. I also agree with you on the present administration's inconsistency with regard to N. Korea and Iraq. It makes me very concerned about Iran. Hence I read with much interest the interview with Danny Postel over at Insidehighered. I'm sure the administration will demonstrate yet another inconsistency.

Oscar: I agree with your point as well.

- TL

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/15/2007

Part of the problem with the comparison of Bush and Iraq with Ford and Nixon is that the latter, right or wrong, was a single act. The former was and is a sustained policy that was questionable in its conception and unquestionably horrendous in its execution.

HNN - 2/15/2007

When the public begins to pay attention to politics I'll have more confidence in their collecgtive judgment. But of course they pay less and less attention, which is why the networks went crazy last week with Nicole Smith stories. Now there's a story people can sink their teeth into. You don't need a PhD to have an opinion.

So I am of the opinion that leaders frequently do need to press against the winds of public opinion. The public is often wrong. Leaders do no one any favor when they slavishly follow public opinion.

Just because a leader is going against public opinion, aas Bush is today, doesn't necessarily mean that he is right and the masses are wrong. Bush is wrong, in my opinion. I doubt very much that he'll get much credit from historians for going against public opinion. More likely, he'll be pilloried for persisting in a failed policy.

The contrast with his Korean policy will be noted. After years of failure he reversed course in January and allowed bilateral talks to proceed. He then agreed to a plan that (to the horror of hard-right conservatives) seems a lot like what Clinton proposed.

Why won't he change in Iraq as he has in Korea?

Tim Lacy - 2/14/2007


Great post. I've pondered several times the merits and demerits of the Nixon pardon. I've generally come down on the "good thing" side, but there's still the twinge doubt. It still sometimes feel like Nixon was "let off the hook."

As for presidential courage and decision making, I firmly believe that it's dangerous to ~encourage~ presidents to go against popular opinion. Lone leaders are of course occasionally right, but I think they're probably wrong about 90-95 percent of the time. I certainly wouldn't want to encourage that behavior with regard to our current administration.

The whole purpose of our political system is to encourage consensus, not the lone wolf. Persuasive arguments should win the day, not presidents with courage but lacking in intelligence. There's virtue in the president having to persuade politicians and the government toward her/his way of thinking.

All the best,