September 3rd, 2012
11:23 AM ET
Washington (CNN) – Sitting in the Oval Office, President Gerald Ford delivered the speech that many Americans hoped he never would give.
On September 8, 1974, Ford told the American people that he had pardoned his predecessor, President Richard Nixon, “for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in" during his presidency.
Ford made the case that his decision was part of an effort to begin healing the wounds caused by the Watergate saga, a political scandal involving the break-in at the Democratic National Committee and the subsequent coverup by the Nixon White House.
“My conscience tells me clearly and certainly that I cannot prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed,” Ford told the American people. “My conscience tells me that only I, as president, have the constitutional power to firmly shut and seal this book. My conscience tells me it is my duty, not merely to proclaim domestic tranquillity, but to use every means that I have to insure it.”
The decision was delivered on a Sunday, a move that many critics said was an effort to dampen the political fallout. But that effort proved to be futile. Ford’s decision was so widely criticized that many political watchers -– including Ford himself -– have said that the decision to pardon Nixon led to the president’s 1976 loss to Jimmy Carter.
Just two days after the pardon, the Senate overwhelmingly voted to pass a resolution that opposed any further Watergate pardons until the White House provided documentation on how the pardon of Nixon came to be.
At the heart of this questioning was Alexander M. Haig, Nixon’s chief of staff. While Nixon was still president, Haig presented Ford, then the vice president, with a description of the presidential pardon process and a blank pardon form.
According to interviews with Ford, no decision was made at that point, but the fact that a Nixon staffer went to such lengths to hint at a pardon led many to speculate that Nixon agreed to step down from the presidency, thereby making Ford president, in return for a full pardon for any crimes committed.
In more recent interviews, Ford staffers acknowledged that the appearance of a deal for the presidency concerned them. “We didn’t want a situation where he’d agreed to a pardon and there would be an appearance of a quid pro quo,” John O. Marsh, a close confidant to Ford, told The New York Times.
Haig denies that any such deal was hatched. “You know, the president never, never was offered a deal,” Haig told CNN in 2006.
In interviews after his presidency, Ford regularly defended the pardon by stating that it was an effort to stop Americans from looking back on the past dark days, and to encourage them to focus on the future. In reality, while the pardon avoided a lengthy trial of Nixon, it heightened interest in Watergate and led people to feel that they never got complete answers from the former president.
Ford, on the other hand, was compelled to testify before Congress on October 17, 1974 due to the Nixon pardon. “There was no deal, period, under no circumstances,” Ford told the assembled representatives.
Ford was the first sitting president to formally testify in front of congress and although his testimony was not under oath, his decision to do so was seen as precedent-shattering.
In many ways, Ford’s legacy is still deeply defined by Watergate and his pardon of Nixon. Ford is the only president who was never popularly elected as vice president or as president (he became vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned). To this day he's referred to as an “accidental president.”