The ramifications of the pardon
Salon is featuring a great read this morning from Rick Perlstein on the Nixon pardon and he makes a point which I don't think most people realize: it was hugely unpopular at the time but was later accepted as something that "bound up the nation's wounds" and provided a sense of stability. (It's funny --- I thought it was a good idea at the time and later came to realize that I was completely daft for thinking that. My only excuse is that I was very young.)
For political elites took away a dangerous lesson from the Ford pardon—our true shame: all it takes is the incantation of magic words like “stability” and “confidence” and “consensus” in order to inure yourself from accountability for just about any malfeasance.
Perlstein sees it as a seminal moment for our country and I agree. It's rare that you have such clear evidence of outright corruption and abuse of governmental power in high office in real time. That pardon sent a message loud and clear --- only history will judge you. I'm sure that's a tough thing for a politician to take but it isn't the same as being forced to face what you did and be accountable for it. I can think of a million ways a person can rationalize their decisions for history. (George W. Bush: "History? Who knows? We'll all be dead...") But having to explain yourself under the legal system is a very different thing.
In 1975 the Senate and House empaneled committees to investigate the CIA, FBI, and, later, the NSA after it was discovered these agencies had operated unethically and illegally. The House committee, under Rep. Otis Pike, who died last year in obscurity, discovered not merely that the CIA was out of control, but that it was incompetent—for instance, predicting Mideast peace the week before the Yom Kippur War broke out. Frank Church’s Senate committee, meanwhile, proved the NSA was illegally gathering the telegraph traffic of American citizens, without even top executives of the telegraph companies being aware of it.
But, in the spirit of the Nixon pardon, the idea of holding elite institutions to reckoning had fallen out of favor. At the height of the intelligence investigations Washington Post’s publisher Katharine Graham complained of the media’s tendency to “see a conspiracy and cover-up in everything.” Senator J. William Fulbright said “these are not the kind of truths we need most right now”—that the nation demanded “restored stability and confidence” instead. The CIA had no trouble promptly drumming up a disingenuous propaganda campaign that all but neutered reform. And, 39 years later, these institutions are still largely broken, and still almost entirely unaccountable.
I would just add that the embarrassing farce that was the Clinton impeachment put the final nail in the coffin. The soaring rhetoric about "the rule of law" and the feigned moral outrage over such a mundane, private matter showed the entire world that the United States' high minded notions of morality and justice had finally evolved into nothing more than a vulgar joke.