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Jewish World Review May 8, 2001 / 15 Iyar, 5761

Chris Matthews

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'He Saved Us From a Long Nightmare' -- ON May 21, former President Gerald Ford will receive the "Profile in Courage" award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. The honor will recognize Ford's unpopular decision, just a month after taking office in 1974, to pardon the man he replaced in the Oval Office, Richard Nixon.

Explaining the Kennedy Library Foundation's decision, its chairman Paul Kirk, a longtime family loyalist, cited a scene recounted in a new biography of the late Speaker of the House Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. "Tip? Jerry." It is Ford calling the House Democratic leader the morning of the pardon.

"I'm calling you to tell you ... I am going to pardon the president."

"You're not asking my advice," the Democratic speaker counters.

"The decision has already been made."

"You're never going to get reelected if you do that," O'Neill tells the former House GOP leader and golfing buddy.

"Listen, I can't run the government the way it is and I think he has suffered. I have got to get it behind me." "Jerry ... I hope you didn't make a deal."

"Tip, I give you my word I made no deal."

According to Kirk, who headed the selection committee, this historic chat -- captured in author John Aloysius Farrell's powerful bestseller, "Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century" (Little Brown & Co., 2001) -- conveys the spirit of the award being given Ford later this month.

What a difference a quarter century makes!

While it was not good politics for O'Neill to say so publicly, Farrell writes, this most partisan of Democrats -- even at the time -- saw Ford's gutsy decision as the right one. He was sparing, not just Nixon, but the country from what promised to be years of investigation, indictment, conviction and appeal.

Recognizing Ford's "profile in courage" these 27 years later marks, in fact, a dramatic turnabout in the Kennedy family position on the Nixon pardon.

Senator Edward Kennedy, whose potential candidacy in 1972 ignited the Nixon team's campaign of wiretapping and political dirty tricks that exploded with the failed break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices, called the pardon "a culmination of the Watergate coverup."

Kirk, for many years Ted Kennedy's top lieutenant, offers a more nuanced view today.

"This is not about Richard Nixon," said Kirk, who headed the bipartisan selection committee that includes Caroline Kennedy. It was about Ford's courage in making an unpopular decision that "on reflection, was good for the country."

"Like a lot of people, I looked at it at the time and didn't like it all, but I think he saved the country from a long nightmare."

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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