Our nation’s biggest political mistake

The missus and me have been watching Showtime’s The First Lady. It’s a pretty good series and features three first ladies, at least in this season: Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford and Michele Obama. All were groundbreaking in their own ways. Betty Ford though was an unusual choice. Her husband Gerald Ford became our only unelected president and he failed to win the 1976 election, which brought in Jimmy Carter instead.

Betty Ford was definitely an unusual first lady. She suffered from alcoholism and later famously founded the Betty Ford Center. She also had breast cancer and underwent a partial mastectomy, which she did very publicly, to the consternation of the White House. Betty (played by Michele Pfeiffer) spoke her mind.

There’s a scene in the series though that stood out to me. Not long after Jerry becomes president, he famously pardons his predecessor Richard Nixon for his Watergate-related crimes. As depicted in the series though, Jerry completely blindsides Betty on his decision: she finds out about it while watching him on TV.

She icily confronts him about it later when they retire. Nixon, she tells him, is a bad man and needed to be prosecuted. Jerry says the country needed to heal and it was impossible to get anything done unless he made the issue go away. He saw the pardon in the nation’s interest.

Betty was right and Ford’s decision famously cost him the 1976 election. Americans felt betrayed by Nixon and overwhelmingly wanted him brought to justice and put in prison. Ford’s pardon obviated all that. Watching it in 2022, it reminded me that we are still living with Ford’s catastrophic mistake.

That’s because it set a precedent, let alone spurred rumors that there was a secret deal between Nixon and Ford that Nixon would nominate him for vice president if he would pardon him when he was president. Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew resigned due to corruption during his time as Governor of Maryland. (Agnew, BTW, got off relatively light: a $10,000 fine and three years of unsupervised probation.)

I seriously doubt Donald Trump could ever have been nominated, less elected, if Nixon had been prosecuted. Maybe he would have gotten a relatively good deal from the courts like Agnew got, but at least he would have been held accountable by the law. Future seekers of our nation’s highest office would have looked at what happened to Nixon and think, “I’m not going to make his mistake.”

But so far anyhow Donald Trump has escaped consequences for his disastrous presidency. He survived two impeachment conviction votes because his party was spineless enough to put party above country. It’s absolutely clear that had Nixon been impeached, he would have been easily convicted and removed from office. Nixon just had the good sense to cut his losses by resigning.

The rule of law meant something in the 1970s. It doesn’t seem to mean that much anymore, particularly if you are granted a lot of political power.

Donald Trump was liberal in his use of executive power. He pardoned lots of his cronies and supporters, absolving them of paying any penalties for their unlawful acts, mostly on his behalf. Trump remains under investigation at both the federal and state levels, but he’s clearly going with a run-out-the-clock strategy. Our Attorney General Merrick Garland seems content to slow walk justice, working from the bottom up. Garland says upper level prosecutions will come in time if they are warranted. We’d be wise not to hold our breath.

Crimes by politicians seem to be the very last of the Justice Department’s priorities. In reality, it should be the other way around. Indeed, the Justice Department should arguably be a separate agency funded by Congress but overseen by the courts. If it’s accountable to the Executive, it’s susceptible to corruption, which is exactly how the department was managed during the Trump years.

Gerald Ford’s intentions in pardoning Nixon were likely noble. As I noted on his passing, Gerald Ford was a genuinely good person and likely our most decent president, something I don’t say lightly when it comes to Republicans. After leaving office, he and his rival Jimmy Carter became something of best friends, something hard to image today. Both men didn’t hold grudges and both were drawn to each other by suffering the shame of being one term presidents.

But his pardon of Richard Nixon remains a catastrophic mistake. The times we are living through today would likely be at least a whole lot less rocky if he had let the justice system work. Instead, our democracy is at the breaking point and our Justice Department’s inability to focus on what really matters is contributing greatly toward it.

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