Two startling announcements, only a half-dozen years apart, both made from the Oval Office: In 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson says he will not run for another term as president. Six years later — we mark the 40th anniversary Monday — Gerald R. Ford decides to pardon Richard M. Nixon.
Both decisions were postponed by presidents uncertain of their own minds, badgered by their own advisers and anxious about the implications of their acts. Both changed the trajectory of American politics. And both offer important insights into how, and why, presidents make decisions.
Mr. Johnson’s decision reflected his own struggle with Vietnam and his agony as he watched his Democratic Party convulse in dissent over his leadership. It is a settled matter today. Nobody debates its origin or significance.
Mr. Ford’s decision removed the Watergate trauma from his presidency but replaced it with questions about his character and independence. It is far from a settled matter. It scarred his presidency and is perhaps the issue from the 1970s that retains the most mystery and contention four decades later:
Did Mr. Ford make a deal with Mr. Nixon before the presidential resignation in August 1974? Was the new president pressured into the pardon by old Nixon retainers like Alexander Haig, the White House chief of staff, or Leonard Garment, a longtime Nixon adviser? Did the pardon liberate his presidency or doom his presidency and seal his eventual defeat to Jimmy Carter 26 months later?
The pardon announcement produced an instant uproar. Mr. Ford’s press secretary, beloved by the Ford family and trusted by reporters, resigned. Conspiracy theories filled the air. The trust that the new president won (he grills his own English muffins!) and the new atmosphere that the new president helped create (the long national nightmare had ended) swiftly disappeared.
Mr. Ford became the third president in a row whose motives were suspect. At the time, that seemed a phenomenon. Today, it is an unremarkable but entirely regrettable aspect of the American presidency. Vietnam and Watergate did that, and Mr. Ford sealed it.
But increasing numbers of historians and other Americans have come to view the decision Mr. Ford made 40 years ago this week not only as justifiable but also as judicious.
The Nixon resignation established that no American, not even the president, was above the law. That was a major achievement, an important principle accomplished in the stroke of a pen without the bloodshed of the eight years that were required between 1775 and 1783 to establish the principle of self-rule or the four years between 1861 and 1865 required to establish the notion that no human should own another.
Given that achievement, was it necessary to put on public trial the American president whose resignation from the country’s highest office established this principle? Given that achievement, was it necessary to distract or disrupt the country as it sought to heal itself from its gravest constitutional crisis in more than a century?
But what is intriguing about the Ford decision — and, in turn, about the Johnson decision that preceded it — is that they both occurred on the second, or maybe even the third, try.
Mr. Johnson constantly thought out loud about not running for re-election after his first elected term was up. LBJ aide Horace Busby once told me that standing down from the 1968 campaign was a preoccupation with the president. Mr. Busby and many others, including Cabinet members Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara and longtime Texas associates former Gov. John Connolly and Rep. J.J. Pickle, knew the president’s thinking. He had even explored with Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded American military operations in Vietnam, the implications of such a decision on our troops in combat.
In the end, Mr. Johnson announced his intention during a 9 p.m. speech on Vietnam from the Oval Office on March 31, 1968. In his memoir, he said he made the final decision at 9:01 p.m., and he revealed it in a single sentence embedded at the end of his speech. The text distributed to reporters did not include that sentence.
Mr. Ford’s decision was similarly postponed and similarly portentous.
As the 38th president was preparing for his first press conference, Mr. Garment worked on a legal brief to justify the pardon and speechwriter Ray Price, who had worked for Nixon as well, prepared some remarks for the president. He didn’t use them, however.
“[F]or the next 10 days,” James Cannon, a presidential assistant, wrote in an account of the Ford years published in 2013, “the resolution of Nixon’s status preoccupied and engaged not only President Ford, but also two other principals involved: Leon Jaworski, Watergate special prosecutor; and Nixon himself, secluded in his compound in San Clemente, Calif., waiting in fear and anguish that he would be indicted, put on trial and sent to jail.”
No presidential decision of the decade — not even Jimmy Carter’s recognition of China four years later, perhaps the biggest earthquake in American diplomatic history between World War II and the seizure of U.S. diplomats in Iran in 1979 — was remotely as controversial as Mr. Ford’s pardon. He based it on his judgment that, as he said that fateful Sunday, a pardon of the president would “not cause us to forget the evils of Watergate-type offenses or to forget the lessons we have learned.”
At the time, that was a throwaway line. Today it is palpably true.
This episode reminds us that our perspectives change with time. A half century ago this year, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution set America on a war trajectory in Vietnam. It was regarded as so wise a decision that only two senators opposed it. Today it is regarded as a monumental error predicated on a falsehood.
The Ford pardon is just the opposite. In early September 1974, the public opposed the pardon by a margin of 53 percent to 38 percent, according to the Gallup Poll. By the spring of 1986 the result was almost exactly the reverse, with Mr. Ford supported by a 54-39 margin.
Mr. Ford’s growing prestige among historians and commentators is grounded in part on the act that so alienated his contemporaries. History’s judgment is never predictable, but it is never final, either.