Thursday, February 28, 2008

Context: Buckley and the Nixon Pardon

After having browsed through the William F. Buckley Archive at Hillsdale College, I note that the man actually wrote many an editorial on the pardon power, both state and federal. I thought I would summarize highlights in what I found in two or three posts, beginning with what most under-informed persons consider the Mother of All Pardons: Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon. In his editorial of September 12, 1973, Buckley addressed what he felt were the major objections to the pardon. Some of his commentary remains impressively relevant to clemency issues today.

Buckley rejected the notion that Nixon has not "shown a proper contrition" and did not "apologize" for his actions and dismissed the complaint that the pardon precluded the establishment of his guilt. As far as Buckley was concerned, there wasn't "anyone around" who did not believe Nixon was "in fact guilty of complicity in the cover-up." Thus, "to demonstrate it before a jury would be a venture in redundancy." Buckley argued that Nixon's critics simply wanted an Eichmann-like "show trial" and Gerald Ford rightly "declined to appease."

Buckley then rebuffed the concern that Ford's pardon highlighted the notion that all men were not really "equal" under the law. He noted:
So long as the prerogative [of Executive clemency] exists it is precisely a call to discrimination. President Lincoln, commuting the sentence of death for a lonely private on one occasion in the Civil War, would not have denied that he had discriminated in favor of the object of his compassion. If it required to be proved, before an Executive can extend clemency, that everyone else in identical circumstances also receive clemency, the instrument would never be used, because research into the question would be endless, and conclusions ambiguous.
Similarly, Buckley found the feigned concern for Nixon's confederates misplaced. Nixon's "principle offense" was a "political crime" in that he "lied systematically to the American people." The June tape that represented the proximate cause for his resignation revealed only that he "maneuvered while in the White House to discourage an investigation, pleading national security." Buckley labeled this an "utterly trivial offense" that was "magnified by Mr. Nixon's public posture" and wrote:
For this he has been brutally - though fairly - punished. Ejected from the White House, exiled from the esteem of the countrymen who had given him the greatest vote in Presidential history; that was his punishment. So we want to send him to jail for double parking?
Finally, Buckley addressed the "hysteria" that critics in the press ginned up with constant reference to failing the Republic, making a mockery of the justice system, undermining human values, clouding the historical record, etc. He called such language "an ugly phenomenon" but, more interestingly "self-justifying."

Buckley concluded Gerald Ford has acted "honorably, prudently, and charitably." So, he probably enjoyed no small sense of pleasure as he wrote about the "Latest Profile in Courage" in his editorial of May 22, 2001. Senator Edward Kennedy confessed that he was one of those who "spoke out against" Ford's pardon but added:
... time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we see that President Ford was right. His courage and dedication to our country made it possible for us to begin the process of healing and put the tragedy of Watergate behind us.
Buckley, however, found problems with Kennedy's reasoning for the award, as it was linked to the impeachment of Bill Clinton (who did not acknowledge his offenses, take responsibility for the enormous distraction they had created and resign from office). Buckley did give points to Kennedy for having a "nice intermediate moment."

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