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The 'Mercy' Pardon of Richard Nixon

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In recent days, as our nation has mourned the death of Gerald R. Ford — our 38th President — politicians of all stripes have spoken of how Ford brought healing to a nation in turmoil by pardoning his predecessor, Richard M. Nixon, who had resigned under threat of impeachment in the wake of the Watergate scandal. In Ford's own words, he sought to save the country from "years of bitter controversy and divisive national debate" by pardoning Nixon.

A Pardon of Mercy to Bring Healing to a Nation

But there's more to it than that. What is finally coming to light is that President Ford was motivated to show mercy to Nixon precisely because of his strong faith in God! Listen to the words Ford used to address the American people when he pardoned President Nixon on Sept. 8, 1974:

I have asked your help and your prayers, not only when I became President but many times since. The Constitution is the supreme law of our land, and it governs our actions as citizens. Only the laws of God, which govern our consciences, are superior to it. ...

I do believe, with all my heart and mind and spirit, that I, not as President but as a humble servant of God, will receive justice without mercy if I fail to show mercy.

Tellingly, President Nixon himself acknowledged Ford's mercy toward him by stating in his response to the pardon: "In accepting this pardon, I hope that [President Ford's] compassionate act will contribute to lifting the burden of Watergate from our country."

In its Jan. 15 issue, TIME magazine ran an excerpt from the forthcoming book The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham's White House Crusade by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy that shows how "mercy and healing" were at the heart of President Ford's pardon of President Nixon. First, Gibbs and Duffy establish that President Ford was a deeply Christian man who "refused to take his private faith public."

Then, the authors show how Ford's faith played out behind the scenes as he agonized over whether to pardon Nixon during his first weeks as President in August and September of 1974, following Nixon's resignation on Aug. 9:

Mercy and healing were very much on Ford's mind on Saturday, Aug. 31, when he spent the morning discussing an amnesty plan for Vietnam draft evaders. When the meeting was over, Ford went back to the Oval Office and called evangelist Billy Graham to talk about their mutual friend [Richard Nixon]. "There are many angles to it," Ford said of Nixon's fate. "I'm certainly giving it a lot of thought and prayer." Graham, who was arguing for a pardon, told Ford he was praying for him, and before the two men finished their conversation, Graham recalled, "We had a prayer over the telephone."

A week later, on Sunday, Sept. 8, Ford went to St. John's Episcopal Church across Lafayette Square from the White House. He took communion with some of the other 50 worshippers and knelt in prayer. There was no sermon that morning — at least until Ford delivered one of his own. He went back to the Oval Office, practiced his speech aloud twice, moved to a smaller adjoining office and alerted congressional leaders of his plans. At 11:05, in a statement that invoked God's name six times, Ford told the nation he was pardoning Nixon.

In this account, I'm struck by how President Ford's faith and his prayerfulness proved pivotal in his decision to show President Nixon mercy and to do what he thought was best for the country.

Ford Was Right to Pardon Nixon

The passage of time seems to have vindicated President Ford's controversial decision as the right one for our country.

The consensus of opinion today is that President Ford made a tough, courageous call in pardoning President Nixon, based upon what he believed would bring America healing after the Watergate scandal — even though it probably torpedoed his chance to be elected president in 1976.

Nowhere is this more apparent, in my opinion, than in the eloquent remarks of the liberal icon, Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, when he awarded the Republican President Ford the 2001 Profile in Courage Award on May 31, 2001:

At a time of national turmoil, America was fortunate that it was Gerald Ford who took the helm of the storm-tossed ship of state. Unlike many of us at the time, President Ford recognized that the nation had to move forward, and could not do so if there was a continuing effort to prosecute former President Nixon. So President Ford made a courageous decision, one that historians now say cost him his office, and he pardoned Richard Nixon.

I was one of those who spoke out against his action then. But time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we see that President Ford was right. His courage and dedication to his country made it possible for us to begin the process of healing and put the tragedy of Watergate behind us. He eminently deserves this award, and we are proud of his achievement.

On a personal note, I have to confess that at the time of the Nixon pardon, I was very cynical of the pardon and assumed that President Ford had cut a deal for his friend Nixon, rather than doing the right thing.

I've now come to the conclusion that President Ford, indeed, was right to pardon Nixon. And Kennedy, myself, and scores of others were wrong.

Given hindsight, what is most revealing about the pardon is how President Ford's act of mercy toward Nixon and his courageous decision to do what was best for America laid the groundwork for our nation's healing after the debacle of Watergate.

If we connect the dots, President Ford is showing us how acts of mercy, both great and small, lead to healing for ourselves and others.

The Contrast between Ford's Pardon of Nixon and the 'Revenge' Execution of Saddam Hussein

This man of mercy named Gerald R. Ford passed from the world stage on Dec. 26.

In this regard, a glaring contrast to Ford as a man of mercy played out on the world's stage at the end of 2006 — what many now consider "the revenge" execution on Dec. 30 of Saddam Hussein. The former dictator of Iraq was taunted by Shiites — his political and religious rivals — at his execution. A Sunni Muslim, Saddam was also executed in haste at the beginning of a religious holiday for the Sunnis.

Further, the Iraqi government dismissed the idea of outside observers at the execution, and assembled an execution party of 14 Shiite officials and a single Sunni cleric.

The sad result is that the execution of the dictator has brought no closure to the sectarian violence that is tearing Iraq apart. Instead, Saddam is being hailed as a martyr by his Sunni compatriots, which is fanning the flames of the Sunni insurgency against the Iraqi government and the U.S. military.

What a contrast as we begin 2007! A man of mercy is remembered as one who brought healing to his scandal-ridden nation, while a tyrant's "revenge" execution has led to more death and destruction for his beleaguered nation.

As we consider this contrast on the world stage and our own call to show mercy to others, perhaps Pope John Paul II put it best on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 23, 1995:

Dear brothers and sisters, we must personally experience [God's] mercy, if, in turn, we want to be capable of mercy. Let us learn to forgive! The spiral of hatred and violence, which stains with blood the path of so many individuals and nations, can only be broken by the miracle of forgiveness.

These are words that Gerald Ford put into practice; even Richard Nixon himself acknowledged Ford's "compassionate act" in pardoning him.

In 2007, our world will be a better place if we follow the example of this man of mercy. And what better tribute can we make to him!

David Came is the executive editor of Marian Helper magazine, the flagship publication of the Association of Marian Helpers, which is headquartered in Stockbridge, Mass.

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Be a part of the discussion. Add a comment now!

Scooter Livingston - Sep 13, 2016

Pardoning a criminal before he goes to trial.

That's Ford's legacy.

Kent - Jan 21, 2007

Thanks for this insightful reflection. I found the contrast between revenge and mercy especially helpful. The connection between revenge and an escalation of violence is one that many of us have a hard time seeing.

Iris Rodriguez - Jan 18, 2007

After all these years and his death, President Ford is known for his pardoning of Richard Nixon. He has taught us all the meaning of mercy although at the time the nation did not understand what was going on. President Ford was a simple, church-going man who relied on prayer. We should follow his example and continue to pray mercy for the world.