Gerald Ford was right. It was years before I understood that.
I was 17 years old on the day in 1974 when the 38th president pardoned the 37th, Richard Nixon, for his crimes in the Watergate affair. Like millions of others — like Ford’s own press secretary, who resigned in protest — I was disgusted by this largesse.
It wasn’t until years later that I came to see it as an act of political courage, freeing the country to move on from a sordid affair that had left us mesmerized and paralyzed. As Ford put it, had Nixon gone to trial, “ugly passions would again be aroused, our people would again be polarized in their opinions.”
I’ve also come to believe the sight of a former president, a symbol of the nation after all, in a prison jumpsuit, would have been emotionally corrosive — even for those who think it wouldn’t, even for those who gleefully anticipated it, even for those who loathed him.
You may think all this is offered by way of explaining why I think President-elect Joe Biden should pardon President Donald Trump. It’s actually offered to explain why I think he should not. The idea of pardoning Trump — which Biden has already rejected — has been kicking around the pundit sphere quite a bit recently, proposed by everyone from columnists E.J. Montini and David Leibowitz to former Trump aide Anthony Scaramucci and former House Judiciary Committee counsel Michael Conway.
Well, I’m here to join them in kicking the idea around. And down the stairs. And out the front door. And into traffic where, with any luck, an 18-wheeler is barreling down the street. Because 2020 is not 1974. Here are four reasons:
One: The idea that Biden should do this, as Ford did, to heal the country, is ludicrous on its face. There is no healing in this. A pardon would only infuriate the left and cripple Biden’s presidency while emboldening the ever-more lawless right. And not for nothing, but why is it always the left that is called upon to soothe the right’s hurt feelings? Liberals have feelings, too.
Two: Nixon was a Boy Scout next to this guy. He “only” tried to subvert the Constitution. Trump can be credibly accused of that, plus extortion, treason, tax fraud, bank fraud, obstruction of justice, campaign-finance violations and sexual assault. To let him off is to say none of that has meaning.
Three: No one lionized Nixon; no mass movement portrayed him as a hero. Indeed, even Republicans were repelled by his criminality. Trump, by contrast, has ascended to something very like a cult leader among his followers and for that reason if for no other, he needs to be toppled, hard. That’s what you have to do with false idols.
Four: In 1974, no one doubted that the law matters. But in the abiding criminality of the Trump gang, that bedrock principle of American life has been smashed. Prosecuting him — and all of them — would go a long way toward reaffirming not only that law matters but that none of us is above its reach.
Jerry Ford made a brave call in 1974. But that was 1974. And circumstances, to put it mildly, are different now. They demand that Trump answer for every crime that can be proven against him, down to and including parking tickets.
Will his followers be angry if he is prosecuted? Yes. They’ll also be angry if he’s not. For them, anger is the means, the end and the message. So they don’t need excuses for outrage. Like Trump, they thrive on chaos, upheaval and resentment. Whatever happens, they’re going to howl anyway. Might as well give them something to howl about.