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Ford’s Legacy: Lawless Government

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The death of former President Gerald Ford unleashed a tidal wave of bathos and political bunkum across the land. Ford was far more exalted in death than he had been during his time in office. Slate’s Timothy Noah critically noted,

Within the narrow confines of Permanent Washington — the journalists, lobbyists, and congressional lifers who are the city’s avatars of centrism and continuity — Ford is considered the beau ideal of American leadership.

Washingtonians praise pliable politicians for not being “ideologues.” In other words, they don’t object to the abuse of power. Ford is portrayed as a friend of good government, but in reality he was a friend of Leviathan — and this is what cinched his good reputation in Washington.

On a personal level, Gerald Ford was one of the least venal presidents of modern times. He vetoed bad bills with a courage that has not been matched by any other Republican. He restrained himself from launching major new wars.

But Ford’s pleasant demeanor was irrelevant the day he left the White House. He was an “honest” man who did little or nothing to expose dishonest government — the favorite type of honest man for the Washington establishment. He was someone who looks respectable and dignified but permits government agencies to continue shredding the rights of American citizens and inflicting harm here and abroad.

Gerald Ford is a hero in Washington in part because he covered up the crimes of the state. His most famous action was his pardoning of Richard M. Nixon, the man who chose him to be vice president after Spiro Agnew was forced to resign in disgrace. Nixon was guilty of illegally invading a foreign country (Cambodia); of perpetuating the war in Vietnam for political purposes and his 1972 reelection campaign; of violating the rights of tens of thousands of Americans with the illegal FBI COINTELPRO program; of sanctioning CIA violence and subversion around the globe; and Watergate, as well as many other offenses. Nixon also created Amtrak.

Many people assume that President Ford pardoned Nixon only for Watergate. In reality, Ford’s pardon was so sweeping — forgiving Nixon for any and every possible crime he may have committed — that it would have exempted Nixon even from charges of genocide:

Now, therefore, I, Gerald R. Ford, President of the United States, pursuant to the pardon power conferred upon me by Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution, have granted and by these presents do grant a full, free, and absolute pardon unto 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 January 20, 1969, through August 9, 1974.

Ford’s pardon effectively closed the book on holding Nixon culpable for his crimes against the Constitution, Americans, and millions of other people around the world.
Consequences of the pardon

If Nixon had been publicly tried and a full accounting of his abuses made to the American public, it may have been far more difficult for subsequent presidents to cover up their crimes. Politicians remembering Nixon’s punishment and humiliation might have been slower to lie the nation into unnecessary foreign wars. If Ford was hell-bent on pardoning his friend, he should have had the decency to wait until the evidence was on the table.

And those who are concerned about how Nixon would have personally suffered from being prosecuted for all his crimes are cold-hearted towards the tens of thousands of Americans who have been killed and maimed in subsequent unnecessary wars. Making one politician pay the price of his conduct could have saved Americans and the world vast suffering.

But the friends of Leviathan have benefited immensely from the obscuring, if not the burying, of the vast majority of the crimes of the Nixon era. The more clearly people recalled Nixon’s abuses, the more difficult it would be to sway them to accept that government is inherently benevolent and trustworthy. The media’s Nixon rendition routinely starts and stops at Watergate. It is typical of the establishment media to treat a crime against a competing political party as a far graver offense than the trampling of the rights of tens of thousands of Americans by COINTELPRO (which began in the late 1950s and metastasized under Lyndon Johnson).

Ford’s pardon of Nixon set a precedent of absolute immunity for the president for all crimes committed in office. Nixon told interviewer David Frost in 1977, “When the president does it that means that it is not illegal.” Frost, somewhat dumbfounded, replied, “By definition?” Nixon answered, “Exactly. Exactly.”

Ford’s pardon proclaimed a new doctrine in American law and politics — that one president can absolve another president of all his crimes and all his killings. His pardon signaled the formal end of the rule of law in America.

Ford’s expansive use of the pardon helped pave the way for George H.W. Bush’s Iran-Contra pardons — thus blocking the investigation of the independent counsel, Lawrence Walsh. If Walsh had been able to get access to the key information, then the reputation of George H.W. Bush could have been so tarnished that no other Bush could easily ascend to the presidency.

Clinton got away with horrendous abuse of the pardon power, using it practically openly to raise campaign contributions (including contributions for his wife) and collect favors. Bush will very likely vastly up the ante, as he has done with so many other Clinton abuses.

The lesson that Ford’s top advisors seemed to draw from the pardon is that the government can break the law with impunity. Ford’s former chief of staff, Dick Cheney, has brought this doctrine into the Bush administration, where it helped unleash torture around the world.
Trampling the Constitution

The National Cathedral was packed on January 2 for Ford’s funeral, but no uninvited Americans were permitted to attend. The crowd was carefully screened to make sure there was no one who would holler the wrong thing during the eulogies.

The evil that Ford helped unleash was reflected in President Bush’s eulogy to him on January 2. Bush continually praised Ford’s “character and humility” as a way to have some of the luster shine back on himself: “He belonged to a generation that measured men by their honesty and their courage … a man whose character and leadership would bring calm and healing to one of the most divisive moments in our nation’s history.”

There is peril in tolerating this notion of president as a “healer in chief.” This is one more shell that politicians can shuffle in their circus shell game to distract people from what they are actually up to.

Bush hailed Ford because he “helped restore trust in the workings of our democracy.” This faith in the “workings of democracy” helped keep Americans docile in the Florida election shenanigans in 2000 and to Bush’s lying the nation into war in 2003.

Bush’s father, in his eulogy, reached even further back to contort history to polish Leviathan’s apple. George H.W. Bush declared, “Just as President Lincoln’s stubborn devotion to our Constitution kept the Union together during the Civil War … so too can we say that Jerry Ford’s decency was the ideal remedy for the deception of Watergate.” During his time, Lincoln was known as the great destroyer of the Constitution, since he suspended habeas corpus, jailed 20,000 people without charges, forcibly shut down hundreds of newspapers that criticized him, and sent in federal troops to shut down state legislatures.

Perhaps devotion to the Constitution is measured these days by the number of constitutional amendments one will trample. Lincoln is George W. Bush’s favorite president, and perhaps it is no surprise that he consistently shows Lincolnian devotion to the Constitution. And it is ironic to hear George H.W. Bush talking about decency during the Watergate crisis, since he himself mouthed many lies and deceptions defending Nixon against scandal charges while he was serving as Republican national chairman at that time.

Former President Bush also lionized Ford for his role in past government cover-ups:

After a deluded gunman assassinated President Kennedy, our nation turned to Gerald Ford and a select handful of others to make sense of that madness. And the conspiracy theorists can say what they will, but the Warren Commission report will always have the final definitive say on this tragic matter. Why? Because Jerry Ford put his name on it and Jerry Ford’s word was always good.

This is how honesty is defined in Washington. The establishment certifies a politician as honest, and everything that politician subsequently touches thereby becomes honest. Bush’s invocation of Ford’s role in the Warren Commission vivifies the utter contempt that official Washington has for the American people. During his time on the Warren Commission, Ford arrogated to himself the role of forensic pathologist-in-chief. The final staff report said that the bullet that Oswald fired hit John Kennedy in the upper back. Ford changed the report to claim that the bullet entered Kennedy’s body “at the back of the neck.” Ford’s revision was crucial to support the single-bullet theory of the assassination (often derided as “the magic bullet”).

Ford’s “fix” on the key passage in the text was not revealed until 1997, when records were released by the Assassination Record Review Board. He never disclosed who prompted him to amend the official record. The revelation of his manipulating the Warren Commission official report did nothing to affect his reputation with the national media. (The media’s acquiescence to the formal investigation of the assassination of John Kennedy reveals their complicity in government cover-ups. Top federal officials assured the public that the Warren Commission provided the whole truth and nothing but the truth — but sealed the records and did not plan to open the files for 75 years. The message was, “Trust us — we will let your great-grandchildren see the evidence.”)

One wire-service article on the funeral was headlined, “Ford Praised for Sincerity, Integrity.” The story noted without derisive comment that among the chief designated mourners were Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, and Cheney.

When Ford was in office, the media mercilessly ridiculed him. Now that he is dead, he is being portrayed as the Michigan equivalent of a wise statesman. But Ford at his worst made even George W. Bush look relatively astute. During a 1976 presidential candidate debate with Jimmy Carter, Ford proclaimed, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.” Ford sounded as if he had never heard of the existence of the Warsaw Pact. This comment may have made the difference in Ford’s defeat by a narrow margin a few weeks later in the national election.

When Ford pardoned Nixon, he condemned future generations of Americans to being governed by lawless presidents. The adulation of Gerald Ford is a reminder of how official Washington is always biased in favor of the cover-up.

This article originally appeared in the March 2007 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    James Bovard serves as policy advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.