Sunday would have been the late President Gerald Ford’s 100th birthday. He came to power under infamously extraordinary circumstances in an America that was jaded by scandal and partisanship. Within months of his inauguration, President Ford sacrificed his popularity and a second term by pardoning President Nixon, a decision that haunted his presidency but that cemented his legacy as a leader of pragmatism and singular integrity.
When President Ford entered office, the national dynamic was dominated by the Watergate scandal. But America was facing myriad more urgent issues upon which the government and the American people needed to focus: the nation was on the heels of the Vietnam War, with disenfranchised youth drumming up the counter-culture revolution, the Cold War and mutually assured destruction were at the back of everyone’s minds, and the nation’s economy was mildly slumping into stagflation. The last thing that the United States needed to be concerned with was the dramas of a resigned president.
In his announcement to the nation, President Ford stated in reference to the Nixon family: “Theirs is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must.”
Fully cognizant of the political implications of his decision to pardon President Nixon, President Ford swallowed a plummeting approval rating with dignity. His Gallup 71% approval rating instantly fell to 50%, and the stigma of his association to President Nixon affected his entire presidency.
But as a man of earnest morals, he had no other choice. Within the context of the Cold War, a time in history where the world’s perceptions of the nation and its leader was a focal point of national security, it would have been irresponsible to allow President Nixon to interminably flounder on the global scene. Furthermore, it would also have been irresponsible to drag the nation through a tedious legal battle, throughout which a symbol of American strength — a president — would wallow in shame.
President Ford understood the harm a trial would cause the nation. He warned that “During this long period of delay and potential litigation, ugly passions would again be aroused. And our people would again be polarized in their opinions. And the credibility of our free institutions of government would again be challenged at home and abroad.”
Now, almost 40 years after President Ford issued the pardon and after inflamed passions have subsided, the nation is grateful to President Ford. He garners a retrospective approval rating of 60%, and a retrospective disapproval rating lower than almost all other post WWII presidents.
History will and ought to honor President Ford for his courage, convictions, and integrity.