In an interview earlier this month with NPR’s Morning Edition, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales expressed confidence that America’s institutions are capable of effectively handling the scandals now surrounding the Trump administration. And like nearly everyone who has commented on the Trump-Russia affair and the Comey firing in particular, Gonzalez was quick to make comparisons to Watergate. If there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, the former Bush administration official said, “it’s going to come out,” adding, “Nixon fired the attorney general and deputy attorney general, and what happened to Nixon? It all came out.”
It did, of course, come out, and Richard Nixon was forced to resign. But he was also pardoned by President Gerald Ford. The pardon was a serious mistake, and it’s about time we learn that crucial lesson of Watergate.
Sadly, the public’s lack of confidence in our institutions is understandable, and, more importantly, warranted.
The pardon, in its day, was controversial. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, journalistic heroes of the Watergate era and media fixtures ever since, opposed the pardon when it was issued. But like the conventional wisdom, their views have changed over time. Woodward and Bernstein now believe that Ford gallantly sacrificed his own political future for the good of the nation in a time of crisis. Indeed, by most accounts, Ford was a decent and honorable man. His decision to pardon Nixon appears to have been made with the best of intentions, and not, as some suspected, as a quid pro quo (the presidency in exchange for a pardon). And it may even have been, as my colleague has eloquently argued, an act of political courage.
Supporters of the pardon tend to offer two defenses: that the pardon helped our nation heal after the traumas of the Vietnam War and Watergate, and that Nixon’s resignation and humiliation were punishment enough.
Neither defense holds up.
First, the nation has manifestly not healed. Toxic forms of partisanship are endemic, and public faith in government and most other major institutions is pathetically low. A 2016 Gallup poll indicated that only 36 percent of Americans have a high degree of confidence in the presidency, 27 percent trust the banks, and 23 percent have a high degree of faith in the criminal justice system. Our nation would have had a better chance to heal had the president been held fully accountable for his actions; it would have shown that the system works, and no one is above the law.
Instead, the pardon is a part of a larger pattern, whereby the powerless are held legally accountable for their actions, but the economically and politically powerful, far too often, are not. The people whose criminality and negligence brought us the 2007-'08 financial crisis and global recession have largely evaded legal responsibility. The George W. Bush administration ordered torture and took the nation to war under false pretenses, and we haven’t even had the equivalent of the British Chilcot Report, let alone a full accounting. And the breathtaking corruption and illegality of the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra scandal led to indictments for the secretary of defense and national security adviser. But both were pardoned by President George H.W. Bush — the very man who was vice president when the scandal occurred. Sadly, the public’s lack of confidence in our institutions is understandable, and, more importantly, warranted.
Yet, in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, pundits continue to scratch their heads, wondering why so many voters seemed to relish the chance to blow up the system that they rightfully perceive as rigged in favor of elites. Surely, it's no wonder that people would feel a sense of grave injustice. That such sentiment helped lead to the election of a corrupt, incompetent, rapacious, racist, sexist billionaire is the great irony of the 21st century thus far.
And now, as our current president repeatedly reminds us of his shocking lack of regard for the rule of law and other democratic norms, we would be wise to bear in mind the crucial lesson of the Nixon pardon. Resignation is not punishment enough. The notion that our citizens could not bear to see their president on trial is infantilizing and undemocratic. If investigations turn up evidence of illegal activity by members of the Trump administration, they must be held fully accountable, no matter how ugly things get, and this standard must apply to the president himself. Real healing requires that justice be done.