And while you may know that the pardon happened, you may not realize how very big a deal it was then — or how it set a precedent for presidential behavior we see today.
Ford had been in the Oval Office for just a few weeks when he made his national address on September 8, 1974. One of the few men to become president without ever being elected to the job, Ford had been House Minority Leader when he took over for Nixon’s disgraced vice president Spiro Agnew in 1973.
Ford “felt that America needed recovery, not revenge,” the President’s son Steven said in the CNN series. “The idea was to get Nixon out of the way, heal the nation and go forward.”
But the public didn’t like the taint of Watergate or the pardon, and it damaged Ford politically.
Recall that Nixon’s downfall came so very quickly after festering for so long. In 1972, five men were arrested after breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. For the next two years, the scandal consumed the country while Nixon claimed he had nothing to do with it.
It was like “an unexploded grenade,” said Cazenovia College history professor John Robert Greene in the series. “I think the American public wanted some sort of a pound of flesh. And in an instant, Ford goes from being a regular guy to just being the type of president they’ve always had.”
When Ford ran for election in 1976, he failed miserably against Jimmy Carter, who was promising change in Washington.
The pardon itself is amazingly broad, absolving the former President of any culpability for breaking the law during the entirety of his presidency. If you want to know why President Donald Trump seems to think he’s literally above the law, start here with the most epic pardon of all time.
Note that Nixon does not apologize for breaking the law but for giving Americans the perception he did. Which is not exactly an apology. But it’s more than you could imagine Trump saying.