Ford's Legacy

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By David Glenn Cox


Deep Throat is dead. The man who brought down a President by leaking information which otherwise would never have seen the light of day is gone. His passing should be remembered because he was the Paul Revere of his generation. He held up the light of truth in the steeple as he risked his career, his family, and if caught he might have been sentenced to more hard time than all the Watergate conspirators combined.

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Those inside the administration viewed him as a traitor; those inside the FBI would have viewed his actions as disloyalty. Millions of everyday Americans would have viewed the actions of Mark Felt as traitorous. He would have been condemned in editorial pages of every major newspaper across the country. Liberty is a blessing wasted on most, like the gift of speech, for the most part, when we use it and we actually say very little.

The death of Felt reminds us of Richard Nixon, a tragic figure bedeviled by demons that lived between his ears. His policies, as bad as they were, pale in comparison to modern Republican dogma. In historical retrospect Nixon becomes almost a comic-tragic figure. Botched and bungled break-ins, grandiose schemes devised by madmen, all to placate a man whose brain was not tightly locked in the upright position. Even the photo of Nixon’s wave from the door of the helicopter has a surreal quality to it, smiling and waving to us as he leaves power in total disgrace.

There were brave and heroic figures in abundance among us in those days. The Republican congressman who went to the White House to explain to Nixon of straw polls where Nixon would be removed from office. There was Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post, and Woodward and Bernstein who broke the story to a disbelieving public. Then there was the less than heroic Gerald Ford, a man who came to the Presidency on just one vote….Nixon’s one vote.

"As we are a nation under God," Ford said, "so I am sworn to uphold our laws with the help of God. And I have sought such guidance and searched my own conscience with special diligence to determine the right thing for me to do with respect to my predecessor in this place, Richard Nixon, and his loyal wife and family.

Theirs is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must."

With that Ford pardoned Nixon and the American tragedy continues to this day. As he explained, "After years of bitter controversy and divisive national debate, I have been advised, and I am compelled to conclude that many months and perhaps more years will have to pass before Richard Nixon could obtain a fair trial by jury in any jurisdiction of the United States under governing decisions of the Supreme Court."

The principle of "no man is above the law" was subverted for an emotional plea based on pity. The public was outraged and the taint hung over Ford for the rest of his life; his personal and professional credibility was shot. Nixon was the unquestioned leader of a cabal that subverted laws and accepted illegal codes of behavior with reckless abandon. Today the bones of Richard Nixon lie at rest; his crimes look almost trivial by today’s standards, and so Ford emerges as the even greater criminal. His pardon of Nixon made Nixon’s crimes something future administrations sought to avoid getting caught at, rather than things which should not be done.

All change in the world comes either from rot or from new growth. Ford’s pardon of Nixon might have been expedient at the time, but it has allowed the rot to fester. Senator Carl Levin wants a congressional inquiry into the actions of the Vice President and the Attorney General and their role in the torturing of prisoners. Thanks to Gerald Ford this is a question rather than a precedent. Had Nixon been put on trial, win, lose or draw there would be precedent for putting members of the Executive branch on trial.

Dick Cheney, true to his character, has extended his middle finger at the legal process.

"I was aware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared, as the agency, in effect, came in and wanted to know what they could and couldn't do. And they talked to me, as well as others, to explain what they wanted to do. And I supported it." (Dick Cheney)

Had Nixon been put on trial, would Dick Cheney be so brazen? Would these events have ever even happened in the first place? But this administration makes Nixon look like a jaywalker with overdue parking tickets. A single pointed investigation into the actions of the Bush administration is wholly inadequate, like punishing Mrs. O’Leary’s cow would make right all the losses from the Chicago fire. What is needed is a national truth and reconciliation committee, modeled after the one held in South Africa.

Working side by side with the justice department, they would hear the claims of any and all against the excesses of this administration. The guilty can come forward and seek clemency by telling the whole story and their role in it. The guilty who do not come forward will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and so it becomes a race to the courthouse rather than away from it. The mid-level bureaucrats, fearing a five-year sentence, spill their guts on their patrons who can no longer help nor hurt their careers.

A cathartic experience for a nation steeped in lies and propaganda, a nation suffering, a nation whose principles have been dragged through the mud. So much so that the Vice President declares in public, "Yeah, I did it, so what? What are you going to do about?" This is Ford’s legacy, executives who do not fear the public; instead they treat us with disdain as they repeat Nixon’s mantra, "It’s not illegal if the President does it." So this is the crossroads that we find ourselves at, either the unitary executive principle stands or we tear out the sheetrock to exterminate the rats.

The incoming administration is cool to the idea of any investigations at all, preferring to put these things away in the closet. If eight years from now we look back on today and say to ourselves that Barack Obama was the most benevolent President America has ever had, it doesn’t change the fact that these things, torture camps, wire taps, watch lists, will have become codified. Some future President in 2016 might declare an emergency and set up his or her own torture camps or secret jails. Then they will ask their attorney general, was anyone ever prosecuted when the Bush administration did them?

Today Woodward and Bernstein are the equivalent of Bobby Thompson’s home run, a footnote for Trivial Pursuit. Woodward writes kindly books about a President who makes Nixon look like Mother Teresa. Print journalism in this generation is, for the most part, the first bulwark of the political fortress, instead of the battering ram to tear down its doors and to break all its windows. From the smiling Nixon in the helicopter door to Dick Cheney with his middle finger extended, while George Bush looks wistfully towards his retirement without fear, but beware for whom the shoe is thrown at, it tolls for thee.

Looking at what has happened because of a failure to prosecute Nixon, one dares not imagine what the future holds for us if we allow this level of criminality to escape the people's justice. Riding to work each day, I would pass under an overpass with graffiti neatly printed on the wall in red paint. It read, "Truth: in a time of lies." It always reminded me of Paul Simon singing, "The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls, and whispered in the sounds of silence." This unknown prophet knew more than all the pundits and publishers in the United States, more than all the congress, more than all the media.

This would-be Daniel tells us in six words, not only the path to hell but also the road map back from it. We must have the truth even if we must tear down the government to its foundation stones, because without it we have nothing left worthy of building on.

David Cox is the author of the political thriller 'The Servants of Pilot'