WASHINGTON — Last Monday, former President Gerald Ford received the Profile in Courage Award at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston. He was honored for his 1974 pardon of President Nixon, which many believe cost Mr. Ford the 1976 election. Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. Barney Frank were among those who praised the decision of the panel.
The Nixon pardon, and especially its timing, forms a troublesome chapter in American history.
There was, first of all, the question of whether the pardon was subtly negotiated with Vice President Ford. On Aug. 1, 1974, a week before the resignation, Nixon's chief of staff, Alexander Haig, met alone with Ford and raised with him the question of a "pardon to the president should he resign." Ford asked about the powers of pardon. Mr. Haig handed him a legal memo concluding that the president had authority to grant a pardon at any time, even before any criminal action had been initiated.
The next day, on advice of his own counsel, Ford told Haig he could not make a commitment that would advance him to the presidency. That left Haig and Nixon free to conclude that Ford would play ball, but could not be in the position of establishing a quid pro quo.
Ford said, at his first news conference as president, that he would not discuss a pardon because "there have been no charges made, there has been no action by any jury." That seemed to put off the pardon issue until some legal process against the ex-president had been initiated.
But special prosecutor Leon Jaworski advised the White House that if Ford wanted to spare Nixon indictment and trial, he should act on the pardon immediately.
That is what Ford abruptly did on Sunday morning, Sept. 8. The special prosecutor's office had been working on 10 areas of possible action against Nixon, from harassment of enemies to illegal tax deductions. The pardon wiped the slate clean.
There were not many who wanted to see Nixon tried and imprisoned, but there were many who thought that history required an accounting from Nixon for his unconstitutional behavior. A pardon after he had appeared before the grand jury and been indicted would have left fewer people criticizing the action.
That had apparently been Ford's intention, but it was not Nixon's intention. And Ford, after all, had been told a week before the Nixon resignation that he had the power to pardon before anything had happened.
Ford testified before Congress that "there was no deal." Perhaps not, but there was a premature action that left history cheated. And a profile in courage shadowed in ambiguity.
Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for National Public Radio. His memoir, "Staying Tuned: A Life in Journalism" (Pocket), has just been published.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor