On the morning of August 10, 1974, the 38th President of the United States, Gerald R. Ford, woke up and prepared for his first full day as the most powerful person in the world. Thanks to two major scandals reaching into the highest levels of the Executive branch of government, the 60-year-old Ford, who had spent nearly a quarter-century in the U.S. House of Representatives rocketed into power. In a span of just over 250 days, Ford went from House Minority Leader to Vice President of the United States and, as of the previous day, President. For the first time in history, the occupant of the White House had never been on a ballot in a national election.
Actually, Ford didn’t quite occupy the White House yet. In December 1973, when Ford was nominated to replace Vice President Spiro Agnew who resigned in disgrace after an investigation into charges of bribery, extortion, and tax evasion, a mansion at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. was being remodeled to serve as the official residence of the Vice President. The work was not yet finished when Congress confirmed Ford as the 40th Vice President. Fortunately, Ford’s long Congressional career had led him and his wife, Betty, to purchase a modest home in Alexandria, Virginia. With the Naval Observatory still being fixed up, the Fords remained in Alexandria. Security was beefed up in the neighborhood by the Secret Service and gaggles of reporters seemed to always be close by, but Ford saw no reason to change his familiar habits — the new Vice President was frequently photographed stepping outside in his bathrobe each morning to retrieve his newspaper.
During Ford’s brief Vice Presidency, the Watergate scandal raged out of control and engulfed President Richard Nixon. As the summer of 1974 approached, it was clear that President Nixon’s days were numbered, but no one knew for sure if he would stand and fight until impeached and removed from office, or if he would recognize the futility of such a battle and resign. When Nixon finally made the decision to resign and hand the Presidency over to Ford, it happened suddenly. It was the White House Chief of Staff, Alexander Haig, who called Ford at home in Alexandria and told him that he should be prepared to assume the Presidency at a moment’s notice. After speaking to Haig, Ford turned to his wife and told her, “Betty, I don’t think we’re ever going to live at the Vice President’s house.”
On August 8, 1974, Nixon officially announced that he was resigning and that Ford would become President at noon the following day. Before Ford took the oath of office in the East Room of the White House, he and Betty accompanied President and Mrs. Nixon to a helicopter which transported the Nixons into exile in Southern California. But the resignation and departure had happened so quickly there was not enough time for movers to clear the Nixon family’s possessions from the White House Residence. So, after one of the most dramatic and historically significant days in the life of the United States, the new President and First Lady headed back to their familiar home in Alexandria. For a short time, President Ford, like millions of other Americans, commuted each morning from the suburbs to his office. Ford’s office just happened to be the Oval Office.
After a few weeks, the Fords finally made the move to the White House. In preparation for the move, the President and First Lady helped with the packing at their Alexandria home. Going through one box, President Ford found some old clothing of his and nonchalantly suggested to Betty, “Well, I guess we should send these to the Goodwill.”
Betty looked in the box, shook her head with a smile on her face, and told her husband, “Jerry, I think some of this stuff may be a little important now. We’d better keep them.”
The President of the United States had almost donated the Navy uniforms that he wore while serving on the USS Monterey in the South Pacific during World War II.
Those uniforms eventually found a good home. Instead of ending up on a discount rack at a Goodwill store, those uniforms are now on display at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
I doubt it would have made much of a difference. Truman and LBJ were Democrats and would have distanced themselves from Nixon — particularly Truman, who hated Nixon (“Richard Nixon is a no-good lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he’d lie just to keep his hand in,” is just one of the many things Truman said about Nixon). Even though Eisenhower and Nixon had grown closer personally towards the end of Ike’s life (helped in part by the marriage of Nixon’s daughter to Eisenhower’s grandson), I imagine the General would have kept his distance, too, had he been alive during Watergate. Although all three of those Presidents you mentioned (Truman, Eisenhower, and LBJ) taped phone conversations and some meetings in the White House, they didn’t cover up crimes while being taped. Had any other Presidents been alive at the time, I don’t think it would have helped Nixon.
In fact, it might have hurt him even more. It might have been a case where one or all of those former Presidents spoke out and said, “Hey, you are tarnishing the office of the Presidency and you need to go,” and it would have dealt Nixon a devastating blow. After all, it wasn’t until Republican leaders of Congress came to the White House and told Nixon that they couldn’t support him and that he was going to be impeached that he finally stepped down. Had Truman, Eisenhower, or LBJ been alive, they might have had the gravitas to nudge him out of office even more quickly.
By the way, LBJ had some prophetic words in 1969 after Nixon was inaugurated as President: ”I may not know much, but I know chicken shit from chicken salad…(Nixon’s) like a Spanish horse who runs faster than anyone for the first nine lengths and then turns around and runs backwards. You’ll see — he’ll do something wrong in the end. He always does.”
Yes, I did see the story, "Richard Nixon, Hopeless Romantic", and I agree that it is awesome. Even better is the book that Will Swift (the author of the story) released last month — Pat and Dick: The Nixons, an Intimate Portrait of a Marriage. If you liked the article in Politico Magazine, you’ll love the book.
Nixon’s pursuit of Pat and the love letters that he wrote to her really show a different side of Richard Nixon. And anyone who doubts Nixon’s feelings about his wife should watch the video (if you can handle it) of Nixon at Pat’s funeral in 1993. It’s heartbreaking. Nixon always tried to show a tough exterior for the cameras — an example is when he resigned the Presidency and walked out to the helicopter with a smile frozen on his face as he gave his trademark, awkward victory sign. But at Pat’s funeral, it didn’t matter how many cameras were on him and how many people were at the service. Nixon was devastated, inconsolable, and literally sobbing. You can’t fake that kind of pain, and the only thing that makes you hurt like that is love.
Yes, I have read it and it’s interesting because you think “Well, it was the Nixon Administration, so maybe Agnew really did have his life threatened if he didn’t resign”, but then you remember, “Oh yeah, I probably shouldn’t take Spiro Agnew’s word about anything, ever.”
There’s a really good book by Jules Witcover about Nixon and Agnew called “Very Strange Bedfellows” that I definitely recommend.
"[Spiro Agnew has] tremendous brain power, great courage, and [an] unparalleled legal mind. He has vigor and imagination and, above all, he acts." — Richard Nixon, explaining why Agnew was qualified to be his Vice President, 1969
"By any criteria he falls short. Energy? He doesn’t work hard. He likes to play golf [instead]. Leadership? [Nixon simply laughs at the idea]. Consistency? He’s all over the place. He’s not [even] really a conservative, you know?" — Richard Nixon, explaining to aide John Ehrlichman why Agnew was not qualified to be President
The pardon was a costly move politically for Ford because the scandals of Nixon’s Administration had caused such a deep breach of trust in the government. Because of that distrust and the fact that the pardon came so quickly after Ford took office (just one month later), it immediately raised questions amongst a suspicious American public about whether there was some sort of quid pro quo. So, the pardon handicapped Ford from early in his Presidency and he had to battle against it and prove himself by legitimizing his integrity in order to re-establish trust in the nation’s political leaders.
The fact of the matter, however, is that the pardon was absolutely necessary in order for President Ford to do anything. The pardon didn’t come quickly because of any sort of quid pro quo; it came because every question Ford and his aides were being asked was about Nixon and Nixon’s next step. The country was still in the midst of a war, facing economic problems, and had just passed through the most series Constitutional crisis in American history besides the Civil War. Ford assumed the Vice Presidency (after Spiro Agnew’s resignation) and now the Presidency in less than a year’s time, and he hadn’t been elected to either position.
So, after a serious Constitutional crisis, the country now had a leader who had never faced the nation’s voters. There was no guarantee that a pissed-off country was going to peacefully accept that. More than anything, President Ford needed to govern, and he couldn’t possibly do that if the focus remained on his disgraced predecessor who was cloistered in exile in San Clemente.
Ford saw the need to shift the conversation from Nixon. He also couldn’t imagine anything positive coming from a former President facing a criminal trial and possible prison time. Again, it would be a continued distraction, and Ford recognized how much more difficult it would be to rebuild trust in the Executive Branch with the eyes of the nation focused on a former President of the United States on trial.
Had I been alive at the time, I probably would have railed against the pardon like most Democrats in 1974. President Ford wasn’t immune to criticism from Republicans either — Ford’s own White House Press Secretary quit in protest of the pardon. But hindsight shows that it was the right decision and even Ford’s best-known political opponents eventually agreed with the pardon. Many historians consider it to be one of the most politically courageous acts in Presidential history because Ford risked so much in order to make a decision that he felt was right. A clear example of the evolution of opinions on Ford’s pardon of Nixon took place in 2001 when the JFK Library awarded the 88-year-old former President Ford with the “Profile in Courage” award in recognition of his decision.
It’s a great piece of writing (as if I have any right to pass judgment on HST) and an especially vicious example of political commentary — Hunter S. Thompson called it an “eulogy”, but a better description of it might be a “burial”. Either way, it’s a classic, but I don’t think it’ll ever be celebrated in Yorba Linda.
I never had time to dream about being anyone else. I had to work. My parents died when I was a teenager, and I had to work my way through college…I don’t have time to worry about who I admire or who I identify with. I’ve never had it easy. I’m not like all you…all those people who had it easy.
Pat Nixon, responding to Gloria Steinem’s question about which women she most admired, in Steinem’s profile of Mrs. Nixon during the 1968 campaign for New York Magazine
I don’t know if “difficult to understand” would be the right term because most re-elections of incumbents can be explained pretty easily.
Let’s just look at your three examples — Nixon, Clinton, and Bush 43. As you mentioned, all three had it pretty easy when it came to their opponents. I have a ton of respect for George McGovern and Bob Dole, but they were no match for Nixon in 1972 and Clinton in 1996, respectively. And, of course, John Kerry was just a terrible candidate for President, so Bush got really lucky in 2004.
It’s important to note, however, that the scandals that tainted Nixon and Clinton didn’t start causing them major problems until after they were re-elected. The Watergate break-in happened during the ‘72 campaign, but the extent of Nixon’s in-depth involvement wasn’t revealed until after Nixon laid an ungodly Electoral College beatdown on McGovern that year — 520-17 was the score, 49 states for Nixon while McGovern took home just Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.
The Monica Lewinsky story didn’t break until January 1998, well after Clinton had coasted to re-election against Bob Dole in November 1996. And, even if Clinton had faced re-election at the same time he was being impeached by the House of Representatives, would it have mattered? Remember, Clinton’s approval ratings went UP while he was being impeached and put on trial by the U.S. Senate!
So, I guess we settle on George W. Bush by default. In retrospect, the 2004 election is definitely one that raises eyebrows. Bush was tremendously unpopular and the only reason he was re-elected was basically due to the fact that in John Kerry and John Edwards the Democrats nominated their worst Presidential ticket since the nightmarish duo of John W. Davis and Charles W. Bryan in 1924.
That 1924 Democrats ticket required 103 ballots before the Democratic Convention finally settled on a candidate. At that Convention, the Democrats nominated SIXTY different candidates for the Presidency! And if they had spent just a quarter of that time on coming up with alternate candidates 80 years later in 2004, George W. Bush probably would have lost that election.
The nation did not want to re-elect Bush in 2004, but the Democrats blew it by nominating John Kerry. You can’t really blame Kerry — you have to take that opportunity when you get it. It’s other leading Democrats who could have and should have stepped forward in 2004 who deserve the blame. Most of them recognize that they made a huge mistake by not running in 2004 because (a.) they could have won, and (b.) they may have lost their window for being President. Hillary Clinton is fortunate to be a resilient enough political figure that her window is still open. If Hillary had run in 2004, she would have beat Bush and would have been seeking re-election to the White House in 2008 instead of losing the Democratic nomination to the junior Senator from Illinois that year.
I really don’t know if I’ve answered your question. I guess my point is that none of those re-election victories are difficult to understand, but it is certainly frustrating that an incumbent as vulnerable as George W. Bush in 2004 was able to win another term. I guess the difficult thing to understand is how the Democratic Party, with its vehement opposition to Bush and increasing anti-Iraq War sentiment in 2004, nominated such an underwhelming ticket in such an eminently winnable campaign. I don’t know if I will ever fully understand that.
Do you know what is most frustrating about the 2004 election? Despite the terrible Democratic ticket, despite John Kerry, despite John Edwards, despite the lack of passion from Democratic voters nationwide, and despite everything that happened from the DNC in Boston until Kerry’s concession speech at Boston’s Faneuil Hall, one thing will always haunt Democrats: Kerry still almost won! The Electoral College count: Bush 286, Kerry 252. If more people had voted for Kerry than Bush in just one state — Ohio — on November 2, 2004, Bush would have been a one-term President.
Like I said, it’s not that I find anything I mentioned to be difficult to understand; it’s just a bitter pill to swallow — still, nearly a decade later.
Good question! And the answer is no.
The exact text granted “a full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from January 20, 1969 through August 9, 1974.”
Basically, if Nixon had committed or helped commit any crime from the moment he was inaugurated as President until the moment he boarded his helicopter on the South Lawn to fly into exile after resigning, the pardon got Nixon completely off the hook. Whether or not the crime had anything to do with the Watergate scandal made no difference.
A Presidential pardon doesn’t exonerate someone and magically make them innocent. In fact, President Ford made it clear that he considered Nixon’s acceptance of the pardon to be an admission of guilt, and he was disappointed that Nixon didn’t hone up to his failures or clarify the extent of his wrongdoing with his statement upon accepting the pardon. That obviously didn’t happen.
However, guilty or innocent, the pardon excused Nixon from personally facing any legal consequences for any laws he might have broken (or ordered others to break) or anything he might have conspired to cover up throughout his Presidency. It kept Nixon from being put on trial and facing probable prison time. It was an extraordinarily unpopular decision by Gerald Ford that might have been what cost him election as President in his own right in 1976. But, nearly 40 years later, historians and politicians of all backgrounds almost unanimously agree that Ford’s decision was not only the correct decision but also a courageous one. Ford understood all of the risks, but he also recognized that he had a job to do and would not be able to govern effectively if the shadow of Nixon — especially Nixon on trial or Nixon in prison — lingered over Ford’s new Administration. It was a remarkable and decisive act of leadership, and it’s no wonder why Jerry Ford was so widely admired and respected by the politicians who worked for, with, and against him.
I never liked (John F.) Kennedy. I hate his father. Kennedy wasn’t so great a Senator…However, that no good son-of-a-bitch Dick Nixon called me a Communist and I’ll do anything to beat him.
Harry Truman, on why he was supporting JFK in 1960 despite having some reservations about whether Kennedy was prepared for the job.
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It’s really tough. They are the longest hours of your life. You are so tired. You just want the goddamned thing over. The most grueling campaign was 1960 because of the mistake I made with the 50-state strategy…In ‘68, I just drove around on Election Day. The day is the worst because there isn’t a goddamn thing you can do. I watched people drive by, and I thought, ‘How many of these people did I reach?’ You really wonder because inside you are paralyzed with worry. You want to think that all of the effort was worth something to somebody.
Richard Nixon, to Monica Crowley, on what goes through a Presidential candidate’s mind on Election Day, October 30, 1992
He has one of the most magnetic personalities that I have ever confronted. When you are close to Nixon he almost disarms you with his apparent sincerity. You never get the impression that he is the same man…who made a tear-jerking speech in the 1952 campaign…And so I would conclude by saying that if Richard Nixon is not sincere, he is the most dangerous man in America.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., after meeting then-Vice President Richard Nixon, 1957