The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation, the Grand Rapids Economic Club and the National Constitutional Center hosted “Our Constitution Works: President Ford’s Date with Destiny” on October 20, 2014 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The following is a partial transcript of the videotaped panel discussion. Used with permission.
Doug DeVos, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation Trustee, National Constitution Center Trustee and former Chair of the Grand Rapids Economic Club hosted the event. Steve Ford, son of Gerald & Betty Ford, illustrated his father’s belief in the pardon decision by retelling the story in which he personally asked his father about the pardon.
The panelists included former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who was appointed by President Gerald R. Ford in 1975; former Secretary of the U.S. Treasury Paul O’Neill, who served as Deputy Director of the Office of Management & Budget for President Ford; and Ken Gormley who replaced Professor Benton Becker, President Ford’s lone representative chosen to travel to California and meet with Richard Nixon regarding Ford’s offering to pardon the former President. Gromley is the Dean of the Duquesne University School of Law and is an expert on Watergate.
Justice John Paul Stevens reflected on President Ford’s legacy, what he believed were Ford’s reasons for selecting him to serve on the Supreme Court, his opinions on various court decisions and his thoughts on the current state of the U.S. Constitution.
Secretary O’Neill described his first-hand account of who President Ford was, having spent 15-20 hours a week in the White House with Ford. O’Neill mentioned that President Ford was probably the last President that could answer any and all questions on his budget proposal, and how that was just one example of how deeply focused President Ford was to the details at hand. He marveled at Ford’s focus on doing his very best in improving the lives of all Americans throughout difficult economic struggles. O’Neill concluded his remarks with “Gerald R. Ford was the President we always wanted and we didn’t appreciate him when we had him”.
Gormley, who spoke on behalf of Becker, provided the audience with some of the insights into the pardon and how it came to be. Gormley touched on Ford’s absolute belief that a Nixon trial would drag down the country and the White House for possibly years. Ford believed that with a Nixon trial, the country could not move on from Watergate and his White House could not focus on fixing the issues at hand. Gormley highlighted the Nixon tape issue and President Ford’s crucial decision to halt those tapes from being removed from the White House. Becker participated in researching the legality of a Nixon Pardon but also that the legal precedent of a Presidential pardon acceptance, in and of itself, was an admission of guilt, even without a conviction.
Panel Discussion on Richard Nixon Pardon
Doug DeVos: As we get together here this is a very special event. And it is a great collaboration. I’ll start in Philadelphia with the National Constitution Center, and we’ve had an opportunity to collaborate with the Ford Foundation in the past and the Economic Club in the past so this is a continuation of a relationship that has been very successful. And the National Constitution Center, as you can imagine, spends all of its time talking about the Constitution, our founding documents, our heritage of our country and how it applies in our country and in the world today. It’s a fabulous organization. We’re thrilled to have them a part of this event.
Also we had some panel sessions this morning at the President Ford Museum and again fascinating discussions and dialogues and in depth about how President Ford navigated some unbelievably challenging waters. And found his way through and used his knowledge and skills as a politician, as a leader, but most importantly as a man of integrity.
And so we are just thrilled with the opportunity to expand on that and talk a little bit more about the linkage between President Ford and the Constitution.
Steve Ford: Thank you, Doug, for that nice introduction. Both of us, Doug, were blessed with great parents. Every time I look out across the Grand River and see that museum over there with Dad and Mom, we feel very grateful that you guys are taking care of them back here, so that means a lot to the family.
I get to introduce the panelists. We have three very distinguished panelists and a moderator, but before I do that, I wanted to just take a moment to reflect on the Nixon pardon and what happened 40 years ago.
I was just an 18 year old kid. Dad just became president of the United States. I was telling Justice Stevens, overnight I got 10 Secret Service guys, you know, and your 18. That’s really not the group you’re hoping to hang out with, and, those were my concerns. You guys were worried about bigger things than that.
But I remember talking to Dad after the pardon years later and asking him and one of the best explanations I ever heard:
He said to me, “You know, sometimes a President has to be like a father of a family.
And he says, “You know, sometimes someone in that family, a child, will do something and get in trouble.”
I’m sure he was referring to me… “…you know, break the rules, whatever, and there will be consequences and penalties and discipline that comes from that.
But what a father has is a choice. He has a choice to grant grace and mercy to that child if he thinks that by carrying out the full punishment, or that penalty, or that consequence will rip the family apart.”
When he gave me that analogy, it made complete sense. This country was being ripped apart at the time when Dad took over the reins of this country. We had a recession, a war in Vietnam, a cold war with the Russians, and the country’s focus needed to be on the economy and things like that.
And there was so much grace and mercy in Dad’s choice, I think, and he applied that principle with a pardon. We needed to look forward, and the country to grow, and so I totally understood what he was talking about.
The last little thought. And I had it this morning as I walked over to the museum we had those great panels over there today.
I walked by Dad’s statue and it’s just like the one that’s in the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, DC and there’s that great quote on the left side of it as your walking in, and it’s by Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill. And I stopped and I looked at it and it reminded me of who my father was. And the quote goes,
“God has been very good to America. During the Civil War, He sent Abraham Lincoln, and during Watergate, He sent Gerald R. Ford – the right man at the right time to heal the nation.”
And I think that sums it up for me.
Jeff Rosen: Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome, and it is such an honor to be here. And we are so thrilled to be here in Grand Rapids to collaborate with the Ford Presidential Library for a symposium on the constitutional legacy of President Ford.
Justice John Paul Stevens: There are…thoughts that occurred to me that separate what I understand as his view of the law and the Constitution from that of many other people.
And one of them is illustrated by the pardon itself which is the subject of your program this morning, I understand. And of course it was a very unpopular decision at the time and on that may very well have cost him reelection of the presidency. And which he surely knew at the time it might have that kind of consequence, but he nevertheless made the decision. But the choice that he faced at that time was a choice between the future and the past, in a way.
Should he concentrate on providing a just remedy for sins that had been committed by the predecessor in office and the like, or should he give primary importance to what is good for the future? And it seems to me the decision was clearly the better decision for the future of the country both because it enabled him to spend the bulk of his time on future problems rather than going over and over again the details that were involved in the past. So I think of that decision as exemplifying a distinction between the past and the future…
Jeff Rosen: Well, let me ask you, where did you get your commitment to nonpartisanship and what led you to conclude that it’s a central constitutional value?
Justice John Paul Stevens: …Part of it has to be my work on the case that I mentioned because when I first looked at the briefs in that case…I thought there was absolutely no merit to this claim. Patronages have been part of the law and the customs of the country for so long, it has to be ok. I sort of approached it in the vain that Justice Scalia described in the quote that I gave. But that case I think did make a really lasting imprint on my thinking about the duty of government officials to represent the public rather than particular interests whether they be political or personal or social instead of neutrally – What is the duty of an impartial official of government?
Jeff Rosen: Secretary O’Neill, I want to begin with you. You were in the White House. You were at OMB and had a firsthand view of what it was like as this remarkable event was happening. Tell us what the atmosphere was like and what you gleaned about President Ford’s thinking while you were there.
Secretary Paul O’Neill: I must say, listening to the conversation today, one of the things that’s really striking to me is that people find some surprise in the Ford decision about the pardon. I find no surprise at all because someone observed this morning, was asked, and they volunteered. They thought that the distinguishing character of President Ford was his humility. And I guess I would say, ok, but that’s not quite good enough. What I found the distinguishing characteristic of President Ford was the self-confidence he had because of the value system that he lived by.
You know, it sounds corny to say it today. He was a real Boy Scout. You know, he lived his life to the principles of doing the right thing all the time. And so I think as much as people agonize, “Why did he do this? It cost him the election.”
I think there was never a doubt in his mind.
People keep talking about nonpartisan. So I have to tell you, in all the time I spent with President Ford, and I would say, in the time that he was president, fifteen to twenty hours a week, every week, during his entire presidency, I never heard him ask a question that was based in partisanship.
He was driven by a mindset when he was president: We need to figure out what the facts are, and we need to do what’s best for the country.
That was the driving force for President Ford that animated his every activity.
You know, so we had this turmoil and everything about our society. President Ford had his own personal things going on in his life and in spite of that, he was always true to his principles.
And just one other point about President Ford. I think most people don’t understand. Young people need to understand this. Part of the reason President Ford was such a great leader is because he insisted on commanding the facts.
You know, so I said I spent fifteen or twenty hours a week with him for every week of his presidency. It was because he wanted to make the decisions himself based on facts – not on what some partisan politician called him up and said, “Get this for my state,” or “my city,” or whatever. So he would drill me with things like,
“What are the economic consequences of building a clover leaf around Grand Rapids?” Really. He was at that level of detail in his interest and knowledge about how federal involvement in our society changed things and influenced things, and so, I convinced him in January of 1976 because I knew because I was a student of this. Harry Truman was the last president who could defend his own budget without assistance and hold a press conference.
President Ford went to the State Department. There was a crowd as big as this of lawyers and television cameras and President Ford answered all the questions about his budget. He didn’t need any. We were all strung out on the stage, you know. It was his way of giving us a little time in the sunlight. He. Honest to God. He didn’t need any of us. He knew it all. And He thought about it all…
Final line to you from me. This is the president we always wanted and didn’t appreciate it when we had him.
Jeff Rosen: That is beautifully said. Those were memorable stories. And I was so struck to hear you, like Justice Stevens, talk about President Ford’s attention to detail, the fact that he mastered the budget himself just like the fact he read all of Justice Stevens’ opinions on his own does not coincide with the popular image of him at the time, but is really a tribute to his intelligence and commitment as well as obviously his great character.
Dean Gormley, you led a riveting panel this morning on the pardon of President Ford. I want the entire audience to watch it on CSPAN because it’s just, you’re at the edge of your seat.
And Benton Becker, of course, was supposed to be here and we are so sorry he’s not able to join us, but you talked with Benton Becker and I think you wanted to tell us at least two things about what Benton Becker would have shared on this panel.
First, what was going through Ford’s mind when he chose to make the pardon?
And second, what was the conversations that Benton Becker had with President Nixon, in particular about a Supreme Court case called Burdick that was so important to President Ford?
Ken Gormley: Thanks, Jeff. I think there were a couple of factors that led President Ford to conclude that he needed to grant the pardon. Justice Stevens mentioned one. I think he was convinced that he had to put Watergate behind the country or we would be dragged through the muck for two more years.
There’s also the piece that’s overlooked that Leon Jaworski, the new special prosecutor, had expressed concerns that Nixon, there may be trouble giving him a fair trial because of the congressional hearings. This could drag on forever. That weighed on him.
Secondly, this is forgotten by most people, and that’s why it is so important for Benton Becker’s story to be known. Benton Becker being the person President Ford sent to negotiate the pardon.
A big piece of it was President Nixon’s records and tapes…
President Ford made a courageous decision to keep those records and tapes because they were convinced if they went to California, they’d go up in a big bon fire and I think that was an accurate assessment.
Benton Becker was required to explain that if you accept the pardon it’s an admission of guilt.
Benton Becker laid all this out. Nixon agreed that he understood it.
And Benton Becker told the story this morning. Those of you who weren’t there. It is riveting. He left, and Nixon’s aid called him back in and said, “The President would like to see you.”
And he’s sitting there in this empty room. And he said, “There have been a lot of bullies in the past years. You haven’t been a bully and I want to give you something.”
And he had this little white box…and he handed him this little box. But in the box was presidential cuff links with his seal on it.
He said, “The last ones.”
What’s so important about this piece of history and it’s so wonderful to have programs like this and I wish Benton Becker could have been here.
But you know, I interviewed President Ford in 1995 in a hotel in New York City in working on the biography of Archibald Cox.
And, as I was interviewing him, Justice Stevens, he pulls out his wallet, and pulled out a scrap of paper with a citation of a Supreme Court case. You don’t see that often, very often, as a law professor, and it was Burdick versus United States.
And he was so frustrated that the public and the media had never understood this piece of it: that he had carefully worked through this, and he thought that he got what the country needed most which was some sort of legal admission by President Nixon that he had done wrong.
And in the end, I think that he did get it right. I think that President Ford did get it right because as he said to me in our interview, “I think it was the right thing for the country.”
And thank God we have people like that leading our country.
Jeff Rosen: Beautifully told and as I say I hope everyone will watch the entire panel on CSPAN.
I’m going to give Justice Stevens the last word.
You heard this really fascinating discussion of the Ford pardon. You’ve heard about his attachment to the Burdick case.
On balance, on reflection, how should history judge President Ford’s pardon, it’s constitutional dimensions, and was it the right thing to do?
Justice John Paul Stevens: Well, it was a decision that he thought was correct. He made it for the right reasons, for public reasons, not for personal reasons.
And as I find what I’ve heard this afternoon very, very moving myself. It was characteristic of a man with an unusual character.
The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation fosters increased awareness of the life, career, values and legacy of America’s 38th President. It does so through activities designed to promote the high ideals of integrity, honesty, and candor that defined President Ford’s extraordinary career of public service. The Foundation promotes the ideals, values, commitment to public service and historical legacy of President Gerald R. Ford and further promotes greater civic engagement and recognition of integrity wherever it exists in the public arena. It supports permanent and changing exhibits designed to promote historical literacy; conferences; educational outreach and other programs, both scholarly and popular, including at the Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum.