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Pardon Anniversary and Future Prosecutions

Today is the 34th anniversary of President Gerald R. Ford pre-emptively pardoning Richard Nixon "for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from July (January) 20, 1969 through August 9, 1974."

The blanket pardon was aimed at closing at least one chapter of the Watergate scandal, although the wording covered Nixon's entire term as president and presumably would have included any prosecution for things like the execution of the war in Vietnam or the imposition of price controls.

The pardon was certainly unique, as Ford's comments and obvious soul-searching indicated at the time.

"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 in a prologue to the two-paragraph official proclamation. "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."

Every president exits office with a reservoir of ill will built up and long-memoried opponents with the ire and the wherewithal to pursue ex-presidents in court — we're talking in U.S. courts, by the way — after they leave office. A court might extend the immunity from criminal and civil prosecution — for official acts — afforded the president since at least 1867, although the absoluteness of that immunity has never been tested.

The ire directed at the current administration, mostly over the war in Iraq, does present some potential parallels. There have been scattered (and mostly quixotic) calls to criminally prosecute George W. Bush and members of his administration after they leave office or even sooner.

The most prominent voice is that of Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted Charles Manson in 1971. Bugliosi has written a book, The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder, the title of which lays out his thinking on the matter. (The murders are the deaths of more than 4,000 American service memebrs in Iraq.)

Ford's thought processes in the Nixon pardon, assuming he was sincere, were laid out in his speech:

The facts, as I see them, are that a former President of the United States, instead of enjoying equal treatment with any other citizen accused of violating the law, would be cruelly and excessively penalized either in preserving the presumption of his innocence or in obtaining a speedy determination of his guilt in order to repay a legal debt to society.

... But it is not the ultimate fate of Richard Nixon that most concerns me, though surely it deeply troubles every decent and every compassionate person. My concern is the immediate future of this great country.

In this, I dare not depend upon my personal sympathy as a long-time friend of the former President, nor my professional judgment as a lawyer, and I do not.

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.

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