Nearly forty years ago in a controversial exercise of executive authority, President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon for any crimes he committed, encouraged or participated in related to the Watergate scandal. It wasn’t a popular move at the time. Even today, liberals rightly feel the Nixon administration was being given a free pass while conservatives hold fast to their resentment surrounding the impeachment proceedings well into the Clinton and Obama administrations. Eventually most politicians and the press came to see the pardon as the right and necessary thing to do, but is that a supportable conclusion?
Considering the zeal by which the current conservative leadership plays fast and lose with facts and rules and the persistence of the Nixonian Southern Strategy in American politics, that answer very well could be “no.”
The Watergate scandal was, after all, an election scandal, so it is necessary to examine its legacy through the lens of the campaign for power. President Nixon and his aides engaged in illegal wiretapping and other activities targeting the political opposition and then attempted to cover up and destroy any evidence of wrongdoing. Before impeachment proceedings would finish Nixon resigned the presidency.
By issuing the pardon before Nixon faced criminal prosecution, Ford sent a signal to the up-and-coming conservative leaders of the day that criminal accountability would be for show only. Among those who took notice were former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney. Now, it’s impossible to trace the scandal of the Iraq War and the Bush administration and the hard right revolution directly to Ford’s pardon, but it does raise the question of what if. What if Richard Nixon had stood trial for his crimes and was ultimately convicted? Would Rumsfeld and Cheney have been so cavalier about cooking up a case for war thirty years later? Even if Nixon had not been convicted, would the possibility of a public trial be enough of a deterrent to keep partisans honest?
It’s not just this legacy of putting aside justice for the “good of the nation” that the pardon endorses. Almost as famous as Watergate, Nixon’s Southern Strategy was a political strategy designed to wedge southern white male working-class resentment against blacks (and women) into political ascendancy. Without this southern strategy there would be no Tea Party. There would be no Ron Paul, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee or, really, any national Republican leader today.
Nor would there be a campaigning ethos defined by a willingness to say anything and do anything to get elected, and we know the effect of that legacy on our current political culture.
In a political climate described as “post-factual” perhaps none of this would have made much of a difference. Perhaps the pardon really was the right thing to do. However it didn’t avoid attempts at future political trials like conservative impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton or most recently Attorney General Eric Holder. Nor did it squash the most cynical elements of the conservative movement that relies on latent racism and misogyny to stay in power. By that measure the pardon of Richard Nixon may have been the least effective, most self-serving use of executive power in the modern political age.
Photo from Orange County Archives via flickr.