WASHINGTON — When President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, he provided this explanation: That the public's attention would be so centered on the Nixon trial that he, the president, simply wouldn't be able to get anything done.
Mr. Ford had just succeeded Nixon, telling Americans that the Watergate nightmare was over - and making sure it was over with a pardon that, according to polls, surprised and angered much of the public. Ford's own popularity plummeted; he was never able to gain widespread favor.
At the time, pundits generally believed Ford had made a mistake - that a Nixon who had escaped possible, if not likely, ouster from the presidency by resigning, should not be allowed to elude being tried when tapes had provided convincing evidence he'd obstructed justice.
In fact, there were many observers then who saw a strong possibility that Ford had promised Nixon the pardon as a quid-pro-quo for Nixon agreeing to step down. Ford indignantly denied that this had occurred.
This questioning of Ford's motives has faded with the years. In his short stint in the White House, this very open, honest son of the Midwest brought credibility back to the presidency. The emerging verdict of historians is that he did the right - and courageous - thing by sacrificing his own popularity in order to push Watergate aside and, thus, heal a wounded nation.
This brings us to Independent Counsel Robert Ray opening the possibility of having Bill Clinton indicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in the Monica Lewinsky case. Here, too, the trial would take place after Mr. Clinton left office.
Let's think about how this is likely to play out.
Despite all the editorials telling Mr. Ray that Clinton has suffered enough, I think if he feels there's enough evidence to indict Clinton he will. He has said he believes no citizen, even a president, should be above the law. His critics call it a Ray vendetta. His backers see it as a righteous crusade.
The president, answering a question after speaking to the American Society of Newspaper Editors earlier this month, said "no" he wouldn't ask for a pardon: "I don't have any interest in that. I don't want one. And I am prepared to stand before any bar of justice I have to stand before."
He said he'd made "a terrible personal mistake" in the Lewinsky case but that he'd paid for it, financially and personally. He then put up a most spirited but odd argument that he should be left alone on the Lewinsky charges because "this Whitewater thing was a lie and a fraud from the beginning." Responding to this, one of the impeachment managers, Republican Rep. Asa Hutchinson, said that Whitewater is "not the issue.... It's relating to perjury and obstruction of justice. It's like saying, 'If I am not guilty of Allegation A, therefore I can't be guilty of Allegation B.' "
Legally, I see the president in a very weak position. And with an independent counsel who is a former prosecutor, Clinton has an unrelenting pursuer.
So if we have an indictment of the new ex-president, what comes next?
Well, if it's "President" Gore, we have his answer to the editors when he spoke on the previous day: That he "would not grant a pardon to Clinton because Clinton wouldn't seek one." And "President" Bush would certainly make a lot of Republicans very angry if he issued a pardon.
But don't dismiss the possibility of whichever of these men becomes president having some second thoughts. The next president - like Ford - just might decide a Clinton trial plus possible appeals would cause such a lengthy commotion it would make it very difficult to focus public attention on his agenda. Compassion might enter in, too. With Clinton there are a lot of Americans who feel he's been punished enough. With Nixon, a widely unliked man, the public feeling was just the opposite.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society