When Gerald Ford died last December, the media rendered a split decision on what many news outlets called the defining moment of his presidency – the pardon of Richard Nixon. As journalists recalled how Ford sought to stabilize the country in the wake of the Watergate scandal that ousted Nixon from the White House, two media themes were widespread: The pardon was politically unwise, costing Ford the chance to win a full presidential term. Yet the overall wisdom of the pardon has become clear to many over the years.
Combined, the themes boosted the idea that – although a president may encounter massive criticism for issuing a politically motivated pardon – such a pardon may well be a commendable act of bravery.
At the time, the pardon of Nixon was a very tough sell, even though the usually prosaic Ford was able to muster some eloquence from the Oval Office when he announced it in early September 1974.
“My conscience tells me clearly and certainly that I cannot prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed,” Ford said. “My conscience tells me that only I, as president, have the constitutional power to firmly shut and seal this book. My conscience tells me it is my duty, not merely to proclaim domestic tranquillity but to use every means that I have to insure it.”
Widely condemned when it occurred, the pardon gained positive stature over the next three decades. In 2001, a bipartisan committee chose Ford for the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award. And the judgment that Ford had exhibited laudable courage got a huge bounce in the days after he died, when numerous media commentators revisited the pardon and rendered the verdict that the prior harsh judgments had been wrong. Ford, we were told repeatedly during the final days of last year, wisely chose to try to bind the wounds of the nation rather than allowing the U.S.A. to be subjected to tortuous prosecution of ex-President Nixon.
In recent days, editorials by many newspapers have condemned President Bush’s commutation of Scooter Libby’s 30- month prison sentence. The Denver Post insisted that “Libby should be held accountable for his crimes.” The Seattle Post- Intelligencer termed the commutation
“a most shocking act of disrespect for the U.S. justice system.”
The Milwaukee Journal- Sentinel called it “a travesty,” while the Chicago Tribune said that the extraordinary presidential action “sent a terrible message to citizens and to government officials who are expected to serve the public with integrity.”
A few major newspapers with right-wing editorial lines, including The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, reacted to the commutation by urging a full pardon. But overall, as with the U.S. population on the whole, media commentary was decidedly negative about Libby’s stayout of-jail card from Bush.
However, don’t expect many news outlets to scrutinize this reality: The president’s corrupting intervention for Libby has occurred after numerous years of media coverage that implicitly – or even flagrantly – promoted the idea that the president and vice president should not be held accountable when they violate the law.
When media outlets widely praised the Nixon pardon after Ford died, the spin was helping to make it easier for Bush to pull Libby off the legal hook.
After their well-documented lies about Iraq, their behind-thescenes power grabs trampling on the Bill of Rights, and their awesome record of illicit spying on U.S. citizens while shredding civil liberties, the current president and vice president continue to retain the power to consolidate their power over the next 18 months. With few major media outlets directly challenging that power, no wonder Bush figures that he can get away with keeping a duly convicted and appropriately sentenced accomplice out of prison.
©2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.