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Context of 'September 8, 1974: Nixon Admits ‘Mistakes’ and ‘Misjudgment’'

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Betty Ford.Betty Ford. [Source: Wally McNamee / Corbis]Despite President Ford’s insistence that he is not considering a pardon for former President Richard Nixon (see September 5-6, 1974), and Ford’s own denials in his 1976 memoir A Time to Heal, Ford tells his lawyer, Robert Hartmann, that he and his wife Betty have decided that if Nixon resigns, Ford will likely pardon him for any Watergate crimes. “We felt we were ready,” Ford tells Hartmann. “This just has to stop; it’s tearing the country to pieces. I decided to go ahead and get it over with, so I called [Nixon’s chief of staff] Al Haig and told them they should do whatever they decided to do; it was all right with me” (see August 1-2, 1974). This is not the last time stories will conflict over Ford’s decision on whether to pardon Nixon (see August 30, 1974 and September 5-6, 1974). [Werth, 2006, pp. 204]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, Robert Hartmann, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Betty Ford, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Richard Nixon’s lawyer, Jack Miller, has prepared a “deed of trust” for Nixon’s presidential documents and tapes. According to the proposal, Nixon and the government will share ownership, and the files will be available for court subpoenas for up to five years. Two keys will be necessary to access the material, with Nixon retaining one and the General Services Administration (GSA) retaining the second. Miller is not sure Nixon will accept the plan, but he presents it to President Ford’s lawyers Benton Becker and Philip Buchen. (Nixon has another reason for wanting to retain control of the documents; his agent, Irv “Swifty” Lazar, is peddling a proposal for his biography to publishers, with an asking price of over $2 million. The documents will be a necessary source for the biography.) Buchen tells Miller that Ford is considering pardoning Nixon (see August 30, 1974). Miller is not sure Nixon wants a pardon, with its implication of guilt (see September 2, 1974). Miller has had trouble discussing Watergate with Nixon, who does not want to discuss it and certainly does not want to admit any guilt or complicity in the conspiracy. Becker says that the entire issue of Nixon’s pardon, and the concurrent question of the Nixon files, has to be resolved quickly. [Werth, 2006, pp. 280-281]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, Benton Becker, Irv ‘Swifty’ Lazar, General Services Administration, Philip Buchen, Herbert (“Jack”) Miller

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

President Ford and his lawyer, Benton Becker, discuss pardoning Nixon.President Ford and his lawyer, Benton Becker, discuss pardoning Nixon. [Source: David Hume Kennerly / Getty Images]President Ford authorizes his attorney, Benton Becker, to tell Richard Nixon, “It’s not final, but in all probability a pardon will be forthcoming.” Ford agrees not to seek a decision on Nixon’s presidential files (see September 4, 1974) as a condition for a pardon; however, a statement of contrition (if not an outright admission of guilt) is something Ford and his advisers want from Nixon in return for a pardon. As Becker prepares to leave for California to meet with Nixon and his lawyer, Ford tells Becker to carefully judge Nixon’s physical and mental health. As for the records, Becker will later recall: “We walked out of the office; [Ford] had his hand over my shoulder, he said, ‘I will never, ever give up those records. They belong to the American people. You let President Nixon know that I feel very strongly about this.’” [Werth, 2006, pp. 293] When Becker arrives in San Clemente, he meets with Ron Ziegler, Nixon’s former press secretary, who now serves as Nixon’s personal aide. Ziegler tells Becker, “I can tell you right now that President Nixon will make no statement of admission or complicity in return for a pardon from Jerry Ford.” Becker believes Ziegler was forewarned by Ford’s ad hoc chief of staff, Alexander Haig, who has maintained close contact with the Nixon staff since Nixon’s resignation. Ziegler apparently knows that Ford will not insist on either a document turnover or a statement of contrition in return for a pardon, and is toeing a hard line. Angered by what he considers Haig’s intolerable betrayal of Ford, Becker bluffs Ziegler, turning around and preparing to leave without further discussion. The bluff works; Ziegler and Becker discuss the problem until early in the morning hours. [Werth, 2006, pp. 294-295] By the next morning, Becker has overseen a tentative agreement with Nixon’s lawyer Jack Miller and General Services Administration (GSA) head Arthur Sampson. The agreement will “temporarily” store the documents in a facility near San Clemente, under restricted access requiring both Nixon and a GSA official to access the documents, and Nixon retaining control of who accesses the materials. On September 1, 1979, the agreement reads, Nixon will donate the materials entirely to the federal government. As for the tapes, Nixon retains the right to destroy the tapes after five years, which will be destroyed anyway on September 1, 1989, or on the occasion of Nixon’s death, “whichever event shall first occur.” [Werth, 2006, pp. 297-298]

Entity Tags: Ron Ziegler, Arthur Sampson, General Services Administration, Benton Becker, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, Herbert (“Jack”) Miller, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Richard M. Nixon

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

During the careful negotiations over the conditions of Richard Nixon’s possible pardon (see September 5-6, 1974), Nixon aide Ron Ziegler brings up the issue of the “statement of contrition,” and shows Benton Becker, the lawyer negotiating for President Ford, a draft statement. The statement, crafted by a speechwriter, blames the pressures of the office, Nixon’s preoccupation with foreign crises, and his decision to rely on the judgment of his staff, for his alleged involvement. The statement makes no admission of guilt or acceptance of responsibility whatsoever. Such a statement would invite state prosecution of Nixon even if Ford grants him a pardon for federal crimes, Becker notes. Nixon would be better off saying nothing at all than making this statement. A revised statement merely admits that Nixon was guilty of poor judgment. Becker presses for more. A third revision has Nixon admitting that he “can see clearly now that I was wrong in not acting more decisively and more forthrightly in dealing with Watergate, particularly when it reached the stage of judicial proceedings and grew from a political scandal into a national tragedy.” Becker seizes on the word “forthrightly” as an implied admission of contrition and a subtle acceptance of guilt. “The word is a synonym for ‘honestly,’” he will later recall. “That had meaning for me as a former prosecutor, because that meant obstruction of justice.” Ford, contacted by phone about the statement, is not happy with the legal parsing that Becker is trying to stretch into an implied admission of responsibility. Ford will later write, “I was taking one hell of a risk [in pardoning Nixon] and [Nixon] didn’t seem to be responsive at all.” [Werth, 2006, pp. 299-301] Becker finally meets face-to-face with Nixon, who seems to Becker unhealthily aged and almost “freakishly grotesque,” with long, thin arms dangling from the sleeves of his suit. Nixon doesn’t want to discuss Watergate at all, attempting repeatedly to steer the discussion towards football and responding in monosyllables to Becker’s attempts to discuss the details of the forthcoming pardon. After Becker manages to get a grudging, distracted acquiescence from Nixon to the deal, Nixon suddenly turns maudlin. He says Becker has been “a gentleman” towards him, and wants to give him a present. “But look around the office,” he says. “I don’t have anything anymore. They took it all away from me. Everything I had is gone.” Nixon gives Becker the last two bits of presidential memorabilia he owns, taken, he says, “from my personal jewelry box.” They are a presidential tiepin and a pair of presidential seal cufflinks. Nixon is almost in tears, and a distinctly uncomfortable Becker withdraws as graciously as he may. “I just wanted to get the hell out of there,” Becker will later recall. [Werth, 2006, pp. 304-306]

Entity Tags: Ron Ziegler, Benton Becker, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, Richard M. Nixon

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

President Ford, realizing that has got all the concessions he is likely to get from Richard Nixon (see September 6, 1974) and fearing that Nixon may die before he can issue any executive clemency, finalizes his plans to announce a pardon for Nixon. He informs his closest advisers. Press secretary Jerald terHorst is not fully aware of the internal dealings for any pardon until he enters the press room, having been informed that Ford is preparing to make a major announcement. TerHorst is stunned at the news that Ford will pardon Nixon. He belatedly realizes that for weeks he has been misled by Ford and, accordingly, he has inadvertently misled the press and the American people about Ford’s intentions. Ford’s explanation that he did not want to force terHorst to lie to the press carries little weight with the press secretary. He feels that his 25-year relationship with Ford has been irrevocably tainted. Nevertheless, terHorst restrains himself, agreeing to come in early the next morning to help craft the statement to the press. But, driving home at the end of the workday, terHorst decides to resign. [Werth, 2006, pp. 312-313]

Entity Tags: Jerald terHorst, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, Richard M. Nixon

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Less than ten minutes after President Ford announces his pardon of Richard Nixon (see September 8, 1974), Nixon’s aide Ron Ziegler reads the “statement of contrition” he and Nixon’s lawyer have agreed to as part of the pardon deal (see September 6, 1974). The statement is substantially the same as the draft agreed upon by Nixon and Ford’s respective representatives. Nixon, traveling with his wife Pat to the Palm Beach, California, estate of Ambassador Walter Annenberg, tells Pat, “This is the most humiliating day of my life.” But, author Barry Werth notes, Nixon has traded for the pardon, and gotten his terms. He will be able to write his own version of history without ever having to admit guilt or responsibility for any aspect of Watergate. He will be able to rehabilitate himself, perhaps even once again play a role in world affairs. He admits to nothing more than “mistakes” and “misjudgment.” Nevertheless, as historian Stephen Ambrose will note, in accepting the pardon, Nixon implicitly acknowledges his guilt. Werth will write in 2006, “Full, free, and absolute, a pardon was also damning and irrevocable—especially for a presumed offender who never was so much as charged with a crime.” Nixon will later write, “Next to the resignation, accepting the pardon was the most painful decision of my political career.” [Werth, 2006, pp. 321-323]

Entity Tags: Ron Ziegler, Pat Nixon, Stephen Ambrose, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, Barry Werth

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

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