WASHINGTON -- Times change, and with them so do perspectives.
When President Gerald Ford in 1974 pardoned former President Richard Nixon of all his Watergate crimes, Sen. Ted Kennedy said the "pre-indictment, pre-conviction pardon" had led "many Americans to believe it was a culmination of the Watergate cover-up." A Gallup Poll taken three weeks later showed a 21-point nosedive in Mr. Ford's popularity, the sharpest plunge ever recorded over that short period.
But the other day, at the presentation to Mr. Ford of the John F. Kennedy Foundation's Profile in Courage award, Ted Kennedy observed that because of the pardon decision, "which was differed with by great numbers of Americans including myself, America was able to heal itself and move back to the path of reconciliation. It was an extraordinary act of courage that historians recognize today was truly in the national interest."
In accepting the award, Mr. Ford reiterated his position that the pardon was necessary to "heal the wounds" of Watergate and the Vietnam War, and "to clear the desk in the Oval Office" of Nixon's problems. With Mr. Ford's own open style and optimistic disposition, he did wake the country 26 years ago from what he called "our long national nightmare."
Mr. Ford's pardon of Nixon apparently qualified as a profile in courage on grounds that Mr. Ford had to know granting it would imperil if not eliminate his chances of election in his own right two years later. His defeat by Jimmy Carter in 1976 has been widely attributed to the pardon decision, although Mr. Ford came within two percentage points and only 29 electoral votes of being elected anyway.
On being sworn in as the first unelected president, Mr. Ford had observed that "if you have not chosen me by secret ballot, neither have I gained office by any secret promises." He reiterated that position when questioned by a congressional committee, but the suspicion remained that the pardon might have been a quid pro quo for Nixon's resignation, and hence his own elevation to the presidency.
Mr. Ford did tell the committee that before Nixon's stepping down, Gen. Alexander Haig, White House chief of staff at the time, had broached the idea of a pardon but that he, Mr. Ford, had told Mr. Haig he needed "time to think" about his options.
The award to Mr. Ford for courage, whatever the facts, should not be confused with the pardon decision itself. While it may have eased his early days as president, it left questions that linger to this day. Would Nixon have been impeached by the House, convicted by the Senate and pushed out of office before he could jump? Would he have owned up to his guilt to avoid that fate, rather than getting by with the now-familiar and impersonal formulation that "mistakes were made"?
Nixon's resignation under pressure generated upbeat rationales that "the system worked" by getting him out of office. But the fact is that the system was short-circuited, just as it had been only 10 months earlier when Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew, similarly walked the plank after being found to have accepted payoffs from Maryland contractors.
In that case, the justification for bringing the impeachment process to a halt was the decision of then-Attorney General Elliot Richardson to remove a prospective felon from the immediate line of presidential succession. That objective was achieved, but Agnew until his death continued in spite of all the evidence to insist he had been railroaded.
With Mr. Ford as vice president, a man who had served in Congress with distinction and no major blemish for more than 25 years, there was no such compelling concern about the line of succession if Nixon were removed. His pardon not only enabled him to finesse his guilt but also encouraged Nixon diehards to contend for years thereafter that he too had been done in by his political enemies.
The more recent impeachment and trial of former President Bill Clinton, by following the procedures prescribed by the Constitution for removing a chief executive, may have put the country through a ringer, but it survived. So it would have had Agnew and Nixon likewise faced the music to the end.
No harm has been done by commending Mr. Ford for his courage in inviting political disfavor by his action. But honoring him for it doesn't make the pardon decision itself right. History, more than the Kennedy Foundation, will decide about that.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).