I know what you’re thinking. Nothing would outrage Americans more, especially Democrats and people of both parties who are angered by what happened at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Shouldn’t there be an accounting for weeks of election conspiracy nonsense and the speech that morning that sent protesters to the Capitol, believing the president was marching with them?
But, contrary to what many think, a pardon would not be an exoneration. It would still satisfy a measure of accountability.
According to various sources, former President Gerald R. Ford, whose pardon of Richard Nixon evoked general outrage in 1974, used to carry a copy of part of a 1915 Supreme Court decision known as Burdick vs. United States with him at all times. That case established that a pardon carries an “imputation of guilt,” and that accepting it is “an admission of guilt.” He used this to explain that he hadn’t excused Nixon for anything he had done.
In fact, Ford’s pardon ought to serve as a guide for Biden. The outrage of 1974 may have cost Ford a chance at election in 1976, but history has not been as unkind.
Several years ago, I heard Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein speak on this subject as part of a panel in Washington. Woodward remembered a profanity-laced phone call from Bernstein when news broke about the pardon. They were sure a political deal was struck, and that the pardon was just another example of the abuse of power.
But Woodward explained how he changed his mind after investigating further. "In fact, the record convinced me Ford did the right thing," he said.
Woodward has related this story on several occasions, calling the pardon an act of courage and an example of putting the nation ahead of personal or partisan interests.
It’s interesting to imagine what the nation would have gone through without the pardon.
When called to explain his decision to the House Judiciary Committee, Ford said, “I was absolutely convinced then as I am now that if we had had [an] indictment, a trial, a conviction, and anything else that transpired after this that the attention of the President, the Congress and the American people would have been diverted from the problems that we have to solve.”
After the pardon, Watergate faded away. The nation moved on. A dozen years later, a Gallup poll found that a solid majority of Americans, 54%, believed it was the right thing to do.
As I write this, the House has just passed an article of impeachment, with the support of 10 Republicans. Many lawmakers are caught in the uncomfortable position of wanting to condemn the violence and the president’s words while, for one reason or another, avoiding impeachment with less than a week left in Trump’s term.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel has said he won’t reconvene the Senate early to begin a trial. That means a trial would wait for the next Senate, after Trump has left office, which means it would remain a distraction well into Biden’s presidency.
Times have changed since President Ford took office as the only president who had no part in a previous presidential election. Back then, people’s passions were not as inflamed. There was no internet, no dark web. Nixon didn’t have a following so passionate it would riot to keep him in office.
It would be naive today to believe a pardon would satisfy the groups who descended on the Capitol last week. It likely wouldn’t stop Trump from claiming innocence or that he had been robbed of an election.
But a presidential pardon would have a pacifying effect on many. It would soften the notion that all Democrats were out to get the former president. And, most importantly, it would allow the nation to begin to move on to other matters.
It also might brand Biden as a president with the courage to do what is best for the nation, no matter the political cost.