40th Anniversary of the Nixon Pardon: A President, a Pen, a Pardon
On Sunday, September 8, 1974, President Ford attended services at St. John’s Episcopal Church to pray for guidance and understanding before making his announcement to the nation.
In his remarks just before signing the document, he noted that the pardon reflected both his Presidential responsibilities and his personal beliefs:
As President, my primary concern must always be the greatest good of all the people of the United States whose servant I am. As a man, my first consideration is to be true to my own convictions and my own conscience.
My conscience tells me clearly and certainly that I cannot prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed. 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 tranquility, but to use every means that I have to insure it.
Shortly after the announcement was made former President Nixon released a statement accepting the pardon. Although such a statement wasn’t required President Ford felt it was very significant. According to the precedent set by Burdick v. United States, a pardon “carries an imputation of guilt, acceptance, a confession of it.” By resigning and accepting the pardon Nixon was publicly acknowledging his guilt in the Watergate cover up.
"It was an unbelievable lifting of a burden from my shoulders," President Ford wrote about announcing the pardon. "I felt certain that I had made the right decision, and I was confident that I could now proceed without being harassed by Nixon or his problems any more. I thought I could concentrate 100 percent of my time on the overwhelming problems that faced both me and the country."
The public’s reaction to the announcement, however, quickly proved that the pardon had not settled matters as President Ford had intended.
40th Anniversary of the Nixon Pardon: The Background
Concerned by the number of questions regarding Richard Nixon that came up during his first press conference on August 28, President Ford asked his White House Counsel Phil Buchen to quietly look into legal precedents for Presidential pardons. Benton Becker, a lawyer who had been involved in preparing for Ford’s Vice Presidential confirmation, assisted with the research.
Buchen and Becker consulted numerous sources, including The Federalist and court cases such as Burdick v. United States and Ex parte Garland. In their research they found that a President could issue a pardon before the recipient was formally charged and that the pardon did not have to name a specific crime.
Buchen also sought the opinion of Watergate Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski regarding how long it be before prosecution of former President Nixon could occur as well as how long it might last. In his response written on September 4, Jaworski outlined the “unprecedented” circumstances surrounding the case. He estimated that the situation would “require a delay before selection of a jury is begun of a period from nine months to a year, and perhaps even longer.”
President Ford also talked about the possibility of a pardon with several key aides: Chief of staff Alexander Haig, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and Counsellors Robert Hartmann and Jack Marsh. Due to the sensitivity of the topic the discussions were a closely held secret. After considering all of the research and opinions gathered, on September 7 he made the decision to pardon the former President.
Proclamation 4311, Granting Pardon to Richard Nixon, was typed up and placed in this envelope for President Ford to sign during a special announcement on Sunday, September 8, 1974.
For two years, public revelations of wrongdoing inside the White House had convulsed the nation. The Watergate affair was a national trauma—a constitutional crisis that tested and affirmed the rule of law. On the evening of August 8, 1974, President Nixon announced his intention to resign.
Nixon’s Resignation Letter and Gerald Ford’s subsequent Presidential Pardon are on display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives Building from August 8 through August 11, 2014.
Photographs of the Final Days of the Nixon Administration
President Nixon walking the White House grounds with his daughter, Tricia Nixon Cox. August 7, 1974; The press briefing given by Senators Scott and Goldwater and Congressman Rhodes after their meeting with the President concerning the resignation crisis.
-From the Nixon Library
President Richard Nixon met with his Cabinet on August 6, 1974, the day after the contents of the White House tapes from July 23, 1972, had been made public. Earlier in the week White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig had briefed Vice President Gerald R. Ford that new evidence regarding Watergate would be released soon, but he didn’t have details at the time. In light of the “smoking gun” tape Vice President Ford made this statement regarding the current situation at the Cabinet meeting.
"We have a cancer… close to the Presidency, that’s growing. It’s growing daily…"
On July 16, 1973, during his testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee, Deputy Assistant to the President Alexander Butterfield shocked the world by revealing the existence of a White House taping system.
This revelation proved particularly explosive as the taping system could and would corroborate John Dean’s June 1973 testimony that he had detailed for President Richard Nixon White House-led cover-up efforts of the Watergate break-in in a March 1973 conversation. Dean testified that he had even warned the President of a lethal “cancer growing on the Presidency,” due to the continued perjury and pay-offs required to maintain the cover-up.
The conversation between President Nixon and White House Counsel John Dean had occurred on March 21, 1973 and was captured by recording devices in the Oval Office of the White House.
In this conversation segment, Dean warns President Nixon that the Watergate cover-up is a growing “cancer… close to the Presidency.” Listen here.
More Watergate-Related Conversations from the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
What did the President know and when did he know it? Find out for yourself by listening to the “smoking gun” conversation!
On June 23, 1972, President Richard Nixon met with Chief of Staff H. R. (“Bob”) Haldeman, following the June 17 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building. In this conversation segment, President Nixon and Haldeman discuss the progress of the FBI’s investigation. They especially focus on the tracing of the source of money found on the burglars. They propose having the CIA ask the FBI to halt their investigation of the Watergate break-in by claiming that the break-in was a national security operation.
On July 24, 1974, after a yearlong legal battle, the Supreme Court announced its 8-0 ruling that President Nixon must turn over the 64 tapes subpoenaed by the Special Prosecutor. On August 5, 1974, White House aides distributed to reporters transcripts of the June 23, 1972 audiotape, accompanied by President Nixon’s own two-page statement. In his comments, President Nixon wrote, “portions of the tapes of these June 23 conversations are at variance with certain of my previous statements.”
Conversation 714-002, Audiotape 744 (NARA Identifier #6852462), Oval Office Recordings, White House Tapes, Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, National Archives and Records Administration.
More Watergate-Related Conversations via the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
This lunch was the last meal that Richard Nixon ate as President at the White House. Photographer Oliver Atkins made a point of documenting the preparation of the lunch.
Later that day—August 8, 1974—President Nixon announced he would resign following damaging revelations in the Watergate scandal.
You can learn more about President Nixon and his domestic policies in this Prologue magazine article: http://go.usa.gov/jUKG
Image from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum
Congress in the Archives will feature monthly staff posts on our blog. Today’s post comes from Center archivist Kristen Wilhelm.
Forty years ago today self proclaimed “ol’ country lawyer” Senator Sam Ervin stepped onto center stage as chairman of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, better known as the Watergate Committee. Senator Ervin became a household name as an estimated 85% of U.S. households viewed at least some of the hearings broadcast that summer.
Attorney General John Mitchell, shown in the photo, was one of the high-level Nixon administration figures whose testimony was broadcast. For the committee, bringing the hearings directly to the people was vital. As stated in its Final Report: “The full import of the hearings could only be achieved observing the witnesses and hearing their testimony.”
Photograph of Attorney General John Mitchell, 1973, Records of the U.S. Senate
Many of the documents are already online!
Today at noon, the National Archives released 950 pages of records sealed in U.S. v. Liddy, the Watergate break-in case. The sealed proceedings include evidentiary discussions held outside the jury’s hearing, pretrial discussions between defendants’ lawyers and the Court, and post-trial sentencing information.
The 36 folders of documents total approximately 950 pages. A folder title list is available here: http://go.usa.gov/gWG5
Image: Document from Exhibits B and C.
June 17 - Break-in at the Watergate
During the early hours of June 17, 1972, Frank Wills was the security guard on duty at the Watergate office complex in Washington, DC. This log shows that at 1:47 a.m. he called the police, who arrested five burglars inside the Democratic National Committee Headquarters. Investigation into the break-in exposed a trail of abuses that led to the highest levels of the Nixon administration and ultimately to the President himself.
In May 1975, the Watergate Special Prosecution Force (WSPF) decided that it was necessary to question former President Richard M. Nixon in connection with various investigations being conducted by that office.
The areas of inquiry that were agreed upon were:
- The circumstances surrounding the 18½ minute gap in the tape of a meeting between Mr. Nixon and H. R. Haldeman on June 20, 1972.
- Alleged receipt of large amounts of cash by Charles G. Rebozo or Rose Mary Woods on behalf of Mr. Nixon and financial transactions between Mr. Rebozo and Mr. Nixon.
- Attempts to prevent the disclosure of the existence of the National Security Council wiretap program through removal of the records from the FBI, the dealing with any threats to reveal the existence of such records, and the testimony of L. Patrick Gray at his confirmation hearings to be FBI Director.
- Any relationship between campaign contributions and the consideration of ambassadorships for Ruth Farkas, J. Fife Symington, Jr., Vincent DeRoulet, Cornelius V. Whitney, and Kingdon Gould, Jr.
- The obtaining and release of information by the White House concerning Lawrence O’Brien through use of the Internal Revenue Service.
Today at noon, The National Archives and the Nixon Presidential Library released transcripts of President Nixon’s grand jury testimony of June 23-24, 1975, and associated material. Take a look at them here.
Richard M. Nixon’s Resignation Letter, 08/09/1974
Following the revelations stemming from the investigation of the Watergate break-in, President Richard M. Nixon resigned the Presidency in this letter dated August 9, 1974. The President’s resignation letter is addressed to the Secretary of State, in keeping with a law passed by Congress in 1792. The letter became effective when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger initialed it at 11:35 a.m.
Government Exhibit Number 60: Uher 5000 Reel-to-Reel Tape Recorder
This tape recorder was operated by President Richard Nixon’s White House secretary Rosemary Wood as part of the Nixon White House taping system. Wood used this recorder to create the tape of June 20, 1970, containing the infamous “18 1/2 minute gap.”
Government Exhibit One: Photograph of the Watergate Complex
During the night of June 17, 1972, five burglars broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate office complex in Washington, DC. This photograph was used as an exhibit in the trial of Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy.