Gerald Ford didn't give wrongdoers in high office a free pass.

Nixon Pardon Didn't Change the World

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Today is the 40th anniversary of the pardon of Richard Nixon by President Gerald Ford. Rick Perlstein argues that the pardon was the event "that really changed the world." I don't see it.

Perlstein trots out 40 years of unprosecuted government miscreants (more or less -- Ollie North was prosecuted and convicted, though it was overturned on appeal) and claims they all benefited from the pardon. It's certainly true that high officials have committed crimes in the last 40 years, and some have been caught but not sent to jail. That's one set of cases, and one that Perlstein spends time on. But to establish a proper relationship, we need a lot more. After all, plenty of high government officials have gone to jail since September 1974. For example, Nixon's chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, who was convicted a few months after Nixon was pardoned. In addition, Chuck Colson and John Ehrlichman, both high White House officials, were jailed, as were two attorneys general and dozens of other people from the administration and Nixon's re-election campaign.

Nor was that the end of it. Ronald Reagan's administration was rich in scandals, and several people served prison sentences; others were convicted but only sentenced to probation. And malfeasance hasn't been limited to the executive branch. There's been a steady stream of members of Congress who have served prison terms, before and after Ford pardoned Nixon.

Did Nixon suffer enough? Well, what he did was horrible. He deserved whatever he got, and more. No question about that.

That doesn't mean, however, that he wasn't punished. Put it this way: If losing the presidency in disgrace was an insufficient deterrent for future presidents, it's hard to believe that a few years in prison would do the job. Meanwhile, the fact that everyone around Nixon did go to jail surely must count for something. It matters, too, that Ford was widely believed to be severely damaged by granting the pardon.

Perlstein devotes time to the Iran-Contra affair, and it's perfectly reasonable to argue that high officials got away with it in that instance, at least in terms of criminal liability. But I can't really see that as a consequence of Ford's pardon of Nixon. Many people were charged with crimes and quite a few were prosecuted before President George H.W. Bush shut it all down six years later. Whatever the merits of Bush's midnight pardons (issued after he had lost re-election), they have little in common with what Ford did. As for the Iran-Contra investigations in 1987, it's pure fantasy to suppose that Democrats in Congress would have acted differently if Nixon had been jailed -- and it's even more nutty to suppose that a Nixon conviction would have changed the behavior of Dick Cheney and other congressional Republicans during that episode.

Both before and after September 1974, some high officials who committed crimes were prosecuted, others weren't. As far as I'm aware, no one has ever specifically cited the Nixon precedent as a reason not to prosecute anyone. On balance, I'm with those who think it was probably a good idea to spare everyone a Nixon trial. Either way, I don't see any important consequences from the decision to pardon.

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net