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Jewish World Review Aug. 17, 1999 /5 Elul, 5759

Morton Kondracke

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Ford gets freedom medal one month early -- IT'S APPROPRIATE, during this Watergate anniversary period, that former President Gerald Ford receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but September would have been a better month for it than August.

Ford assumed the presidency 25 years ago this week upon the resignation of then-President Richard Nixon, but his most decisive and courageous act came a month later, on Sept. 8, 1974, when he granted Nixon a pardon.

His action cost him dearly. His approval rating took an immediate plunge from 71 percent in the Gallup poll to 49 percent. His press secretary resigned. He was accused of having made a "secret deal" with Nixon to gain the presidency. The pardon may have ruined his chances of being elected president in 1976.

But it was the right thing to do, and Ford did it for the right reasons. The country was suffering from a 12 percent inflation rate. South Vietnam was on its way to losing the war with the North. And yet, the media, politicians and much of the public was still fixated on the fate of Nixon.

In Ford's first press conference as president, on Aug. 28, nine of the 28 questions thrown at Ford concerned Nixon and the possibility that Ford would pardon him.

Nixon was facing almost certain indictment and a trial on obstruction of justice charges. As Ford explained in his memoir, "A Time to Heal," the whole process would have taken a minimum of two years and a maximum of six.

"The story would overshadow everything else. No other issue could compete with the drama of a former president trying to stay out of jail. It would be virtually impossible for me to direct public attention to anything else.

"Passions on both sides would be aroused. A period of such prolonged vituperation would be disastrous for the nation. America needed recovery, not revenge. The hate had to be drained and the healing begun."

Ford's role in reconciling the population and re-establishing confidence in the government rightly figured prominently in President Clinton's citation of Ford at the medal ceremony on Wednesday.

But Ford's execution of the pardon -- and his overall assessment of Nixon -- get criticized in Bob Woodward's new book "Shadow" (Simon & Shuster).

Woodward also explores at length the question of whether the pardon was the fulfillment of a "secret deal" with Nixon.

Woodward asserts that then-White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig presented then-Vice President Ford on Aug. 1, 1973, with a "deal" -- Nixon's resignation (meaning Ford's ascendancy to the presidency) in return for the promise of a pardon.

Haig denies doing so. Woodward asserts that Ford, in an interview, confirmed Haig's proposal, though he does not report the exact words that Haig allegedly used with Ford.

Woodward does support Ford's contention -- then and ever since -- that Ford did not agree to any "deal." After consulting with aides and his wife, Betty, Ford called Haig at 1:30 a.m. on Aug. 2 and made it clear "there was no agreement, no decision and no deal."

Had Ford agreed to a pardon at the time, he could have been accused of "purchasing" his office with the promise of a government favor -- which is a crime.

The logic of the situation, as well as all evidence on the point, sustains Ford: Nixon faced certain ouster from office. Ford was going to become president. He didn't need to offer Nixon anything.

The logic also makes it possible that Haig, for patriotic reasons, offered a deal: He wanted the long Watergate ordeal to end quickly, but Nixon was wavering hourly between the options of resigning and fighting his inevitable impeachment by the House and conviction in the Senate, a process that might have taken weeks or months to play out.

Woodward faults Ford for not preparing the country for the pardon with "elaborate orchestration," but that would have involved delay and would have looked like indecision on Ford's part. Ford lanced the boil in a month.

Woodward also charges that Ford even yet fails to understand the full import of Watergate because, in an interview, Ford said that "90 percent of Dick Nixon was first class. But he had a 10 percent quirk that got exploited by himself and by others."

However, in an interview I had with Ford last week, he makes it clear that he believes Nixon did engage in impeachable offenses and would have voted to oust him from office.

He said he is not sure how he would have voted in Clinton's case, but that he is convinced Clinton committed perjury in the Monica Lewinsky affair.

Also in the interview, Ford lamented the partisanship that has taken over the House that he served in for 25 years that he said "tends to roadblock good legislative action."

Ford was, as Clinton observed Wednesday, "a leader of character, courage, decency and integrity."

Some day, if we're fortunate, we might have his like back in charge of the government again.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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