The U.S. Supreme Court, including former President Richard Nixon’s own appointees, ruled 8-0 that Nixon must turn over 64 tapes of White House conversations to the Watergate special prosecutor on Aug. 5, 1974. Investigators heard a tape on which Nixon had ordered his White House chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, to have the FBI abort its Watergate investigation — a clear obstruction of justice by Nixon.
The date on which this tape was made, June 23, 1972 — barely six days after the Watergate break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters — was conclusive proof that Nixon personally knew, long before he admitted it, about his campaign committee’s direct involvement in the burglary.
Thus was sealed the fate of Nixon, who, 40 years ago, became the only U.S. president to resign from office. Gerald Ford, by succeeding Nixon, would become the only U.S. president not to have been elected by the nation’s voters. Fourteen years earlier, he had been re-elected to his Grand Rapids, Mich., congressional district with 130,461 votes, the most of his career.
Ford had not been Nixon’s first choice to replace Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had resigned from office after pleading guilty to evading taxes on bribes he, both as Maryland governor and vice president, had extorted from Baltimore-area businessmen. Nixon had wanted to nominate Treasury secretary and former Texas Gov. John Connally. A former Democrat, Connally was charismatic, commanding and brimming with self-confidence.
But opposition came from Republicans, who feared that as vice president Connally would have a big leg up for their party’s 1976 nomination, and from Democrats who both distrusted and feared Connally to Ford, the popular House minority leader, who could win confirmation from the Democratic Congress.
In the Oval Office, Ford was exactly what the nation needed. First of all, and importantly, he was normal. Proud that he had political adversaries but no enemies, Ford was straightforward and authentic.
Barely one month into office, on Sept. 8, 1974, Ford made the widely unpopular decision to give an unconditional pardon to Nixon. His explanation that the pardon would spare the country the spectacle of a former president on public trial was rejected by most voters, who by then were quite ready to have Nixon, who had disgraced himself and dishonored the office while disillusioning the nation, be held publicly accountable for his offenses.
It was not a wise political decision by Ford. His own popularity suffered an enormous hit, and his chances for re-election in 1976 may well have been doomed by the Nixon pardon. But it was a wise presidential decision that really did help in Ford’s stated objective, which was “to heal the nation.”
Some 27 years later, Ford was deservedly given the Profile in Courage by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library for sacrificing his popularity to principle and voluntarily jeopardizing his own chances to win the White House.
It has been rightly observed that close only counts in three things: horseshoes, hand grenades and slow dancing. But a switch of only 12,741 votes in just two states, Mississippi and Ohio, on Nov. 2, 1976, and Ford, not Jimmy Carter, would have been elected president.
By choosing Ford to be one heartbeat from the presidency, Nixon gave his country a special man, who, unlike himself, was not only comfortable in his own skin but willing to sacrifice personal ambition to actually help us “form a more perfect union.”
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.