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Mark Shields: Gerald Ford and the 2016 Election

On Sept. 8, 1974, one month after he became the nation's only un-elected commander in chief, President Gerald R. Ford granted a "full, free, and absolute pardon" to his predecessor, the resigned Richard M. Nixon, "for all offenses against the United States which he ... has committed or may have committed."

Ford's pardoning of Nixon, a brave effort to begin the painful process of national healing after the bitter divisions from the Watergate crimes, was almost universally condemned. There were widespread charges of a secret deal.

The nation's editorial pages hammered Ford. His fellow Republicans, as well as Democrats, piled on. The new president's popularity plummeted some 22 percent and never really rebounded. Ford's Nixon pardon would contribute, two years later, to his losing the presidency in a photo finish to Jimmy Carter.

History would eventually vindicate Ford. His pardon, an act of courage and conscience, spared his nation the venom and the vengeance a public trial of Nixon would have guaranteed. Ford chose principle over popularity.

In the 2016 presidential election, there was, sadly, to be no Ford in our future.

Let us not forget the genuine public outrage in reaction to the October publication by The Washington Post of a video of Donald Trump — before an appearance on "Access Hollywood" — basically giving instructions on how to sexually assault women.

Already-skittish Republican congressional candidates rushed to get political distance from Trump — no one more emphatically than Utah's Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

While telling KSTU-TV he would not vote for Trump, Chaffetz explained why he was putting principle over politics, assailing Trump's language as "some of the most abhorrent and offensive comments that you can possibly imagine."

He then justified it in personal terms: "My wife and I, we have a 15-year-old daughter, and if I can't look her in the eye and tell her these things, I can't endorse this person."

But just a couple of weeks later, when public polls revealed that family-values Republican voters — many of the same folks who had strongly urged, on character grounds, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton — were loyally sticking with self-proclaimed sexual predator Trump, Chaffetz reconsidered.

With no mention of paternal eye contact or his cherished 15-year-old daughter, he disclosed that in fact, he will vote for Trump.

Chaffetz's principle and courage recall British politician Jeremy Thorpe's put-down after an opponent's treacherous disloyalty was exposed: "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life."

Where, please, is Gerald Ford when we so desperately need him?

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.

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