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NIXON PARDON: For Friendship, Not Country

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by Taylor Marsh

Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, shown in October 1973, were friends as much as political allies. (UPI)

When I wrote the post I Can't Forgive Ford, all hell broke loose in some quarters. Some wouldn't talk about it, ignored it completely, with some comments unprintable. Being proved correct in my assessment is not really important, because my feelings ran deep on this issue. But today's article by Bob Woodward does illuminate why I felt the way I have for all of these years.

As the corporate hack pack continue blabbering on about how the pardon was the right thing to do, I remain so totally unconvinced, that when I saw Woodward's article much earlier today all I could do was smile and think what a good one Mr. Ford pulled on us all, well, almost all. See, I have an instinct about these things, which goes back a very long time. I was immersed in politics at a very young age, through my older brother's care and schooling, and have cultivated my senses over decades.

Read Woodward's piece for yourself, which I believe is as important an historical document to add to the Ford legacy as it is to Nixon's, as well as this country's. For decades, people have talked about how the pardon was Nixon's way of admitting his guilt, and Ford's way of forcing him into it, for the country's sake. Nothing could have been further from the truth, as most readers around here understood and many more shared in emails.

Woodward finishes the debate. No, actually, it was Ford himself that gave us closure. It's about time.

Months before Richard M. Nixon set a relatively unknown Michigan congressman named Gerald R. Ford on the path to the White House, Nixon turned to Ford, who called himself the embattled president's "only real friend," to get him out of trouble.

During one of the darkest days of the Watergate scandal, Nixon secretly confided in Ford, at the time the House minority leader. He begged for help. He complained about fair-weather friends and swore at perceived rivals in his own party. "Tell the guys, goddamn it, to get off their ass and start fighting back," Nixon pleaded with Ford in one call recorded by the president's secret taping system.

And Ford did. "Anytime you want me to do anything, under any circumstances, you give me a call, Mr. President," he told Nixon during that May 1, 1973, conversation. "We'll stand by you morning, noon and night."

This and other previously unpublished transcripts of their calls, documents and personal letters provide a portrait of an intensely personal friendship dating to the late 1940s but so hidden that few others were even aware of it. Until now, the relationship between the two presidents has been portrayed largely as a matter of political necessity, with Nixon tapping Ford for the vice presidency in late 1973 because he was a confirmable choice on Capitol Hill.

But the tapes, documents and two lengthy recent interviews with Ford before his death this week, conducted for a future book and embargoed until after his death, show that the close political alliance between the two men seriously influenced Ford's eventual decision to pardon Nixon, the most momentous decision of his short presidency and almost certainly the one that cost him any chance of winning the White House in his own right two years later. Ford became president on Aug. 9, 1974; he pardoned Nixon just a month later. "I think that Nixon felt I was about the only person he could really trust on the Hill," Ford said during the 2005 interview.

Ford returned the feeling.

"I looked upon him as my personal friend. And I always treasured our relationship. And I had no hesitancy about granting the pardon, because I felt that we had this relationship and that I didn't want to see my real friend have the stigma," Ford said in the interview. ...

Ford, Nixon Sustained Friendship for Decades

Obviously, this does not make Gerald R. Ford a bad person, but it certainly does reveal the foundational motives behind the pardon of Richard M. Nixon. In doing so, especially with the shiv Ford put in Mr. Bush's back this week on Iraq, posthumously, it says a whole lot about President Ford. He may be known as the "accidental president," but there was nothing accidental about his calculations throughout his political life.

The pardon had absolutely nothing to do with this country. It was strictly personal. It also pushes the door back open on Gerald R. Ford and his actual legacy, which I believe will broaden, if only with more questions to be asked. Just think of what we've learned this week.

- Taylor Marsh

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