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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Watergate Redux

The passing of former President Gerald Ford is certainly sad news and has generated the expected amount of commentary from an event of this type. It's nice to be able to look back on an administration of either party where virtually no one has ANYTHING bad to say about a President's motives or whether AT THE TIME a President made what he truly thought was the best choice among difficult alternatives for a variety of issues.

It is rather troubling, on the other hand, to see the modern-day press and the commentariat putting on rose colored glasses, drinking the Kool-aid, and falling neatly into step on the major storyline of the Ford Presidency -- the story that Ford's assumption of office helped restore trust in the office and his pardon of Nixon helped, as he himself put it, "put this long national nightmare behind us."

Obviously, his decision to pardon was highly unpopular at the time but today's press coverage seems to be uniformly touting the theme that pardoning Nixon was, in fact, the best path for the country by eliminating the distraction that hearings, investigations and trials might have generated. According to the official story, the pardon allowed his Administration to focus on ending our involvement in Vietnam and combating the inflation and economic stagnation that were crippling the country.

Again, I have ZERO doubt that Ford's decision to pardon was completely honorable in that it was made in good faith because he believed at the time it was the "least worst" thing to do. THIS IS NOT A CRITIQUE OF GERALD FORD. However, that does not mean those of us reviewing those decisions 30+ years later have to accept they were the CORRECT decisions. The point is not to hold a President 30 years after the fact accountable. The purpose is to avoid making similar mistakes NOW when facing similar circumstances.

Given the performance of the American economy from 1975 through 81, does it now appear that the policies Ford was able to enact did ANYTHING to correct the inefficient industry, poor productivity or geopolitical factors contributing to oil spikes that continued to plague the economy? (CAVEAT: I will give Ford major kudos for vetoing over 60 spending bills -- other Presidents, please take note...) Carter's deregulation of trucking and airlines did more to spur improvements in productivity than anything Ford had pursued or proposed and even THAT wasn't nearly enough to fix the American economy. Only electro-shock therapy in the form of a recession imposed by Paul Volcker was enough to break the cycle. So it's hard to argue that by choosing the "just drop it already" approach to Watergate and focusing on other issues, Americans actually gained anything from those other issues.

So what did the "just drop it already" approach to Watergate provide the American people? One could argue we got a crook out of office, but that's not really true. The pardon didn't prompt Nixon's resignation, the disgrace of a threatened impeachment did. The pardon came afterwards. Pursuit of criminal charges against Nixon would have ensured the American public had a complete understand of the nature and extent of the crimes of Nixon himself and of the enablers around him. If Ford chose to pardon Nixon AFTER proper investigations and a criminal trial, at least the American public would have seen confirmation our society was capable of operating as a nation of laws. Instead, circumventing the process with a pre-emptive pardon set a precedent that has grown increasingly common in both big government and big business --- the "I didn't do anything and I'll never do it again" approach to public / corporate wrong-doing.

Ford's decision to pardon Nixon and avoid further contention at the end of Watergate produced one other impact that seems bitterly ironic now. Failing to fully investigate Nixon's conduct and illegal actions failed to fully discredit the tactics and political theories of a particular paranoid wing (closet, really...) of the Republican Party that came back to power in full force in the Bush Administration. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were chosen for a variety of White House staff / cabinet positions so Nixon clearly saw SOMETHING he liked in them. Maybe Rumsfeld's skills as a "ruthless bastard" are what caught Nixon's eye.

The irony is that by failing to fully address the problems of Watergate at the time, we are now facing similar issues of public accountability and separation of powers between Congress and the President due to ill-conceived (if not criminal) actions taken by some of the very same people who should have been banished from public service the first time around.