The Pardon

Nixon, Ford, Haig, and the transfer of power. (Hersh's book The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House was published in 1983).

Haig, also angry; answered, "Yes." Ford was grateful for his intervention, Becker says, but seemed not to understand that Haig was doing more than relaying information from the FBI: "He was also trying to ingratiate himself with Ford." Haig's instincts in doing so were normal for a good bureaucrat, but his method was questionable: John Dean's efforts to provide background FBI information to the White House had already emerged as a focal point for Watergate scandal.

Haig's courting of Gerald Ford intensified with the Watergate crisis. By July 30, 1974, Richard Nixon's position was desperate. The House Judiciary Committee had voted three articles of impeachment in the preceding few days, with debate scheduled to begin in the full House on August 19. The loss of his Supreme Court case on July 24 forced Nixon to turn over the June 23, 1972, tape, which he knew would make a vote for impeachment certain. His last chance was in the Senate, where he would be tried, but if he lost his case there he would lose his pension and other benefits due an ex-President. A resignation, as Nixon noted in RN, his 1978 memoir, would lead to "an onslaught of lawsuits that would cost millions of dollars and take years to fight in the courts." Another issue, surely not noted in the memoirs—was the possibility of going to prison. Nixon wrote that on July 31, he was told by Haig and Ronald Ziegler, his press secretary, that they found the June 23 tape recording to be devastating. "I just don't see how we can survive this one," Nixon quoted Haig as saying. "I told Haig that I had decided to resign," Nixon wrote. "If the June 23 tape was not explainable, I could not very well expect the staff to try to explain it and defend it." He instructed Haig to meet with Ford and tell him that he was thinking of resigning, without indicating when. "I said Haig should ask him to be prepared to take over sometime within the next few days."

From mid-July on, Ford had been constantly urged by his close aides and friends, including Robert T. Hartmann, a former Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, who was his chief of staff, to avoid discussing Nixon’s future with Al Haig. The advisers believed that Nixon was seeking a commitment for a pardon from Ford. Laird recalls telephoning Philip W Buchen, who later became presidential counselor to Ford, and telling Buchen "to keep those guys [Nixon's men] away from him." Hartmann wrote in his memoirs of receiving an early-evening telephone call from Haig on July 31, requesting a private appointment with Ford the next morning. Haig would come to Ford's office. Before the meeting, Hartmann wrote, he urged Ford to permit him to sit in: "I just think you might want to have a witness to who said what... I don't know what's on Haig's mind." There was little love lost between Hartmann and Haig; the two became bitter rivals after Nixon's resignation. Haig, furious over what he viewed as Hartmann's sniping to the press behind his back, once grabbed a Hartmann aide by the lapels, according to that aide, and declared, "If you have any influence over that fat Kraut, you tell him to knock it off or he's going to be the first stretcher case coming out of the West Wing."

Haig was unhappy on the morning of August 1 to find Hartmann at Ford's office, and after it became clear that Hartmann would not leave, he chose not to relay Nixon's message. Nixon's "mood was constantly changing," Hartmann wrote that Haig told them. "One minute he was all for fighting it out ....Then he would appear strangely indifferent . . . ." There was no talk of imminent resignation. A few moments after the meeting, Haig placed another call to Ford, who had left the White House with Hartmann to drive to the Vice President's office in the Senate. The conversation was one-sided: Hartmann listened as Ford uttered a series of uh-huhs. Ford told him that he had agreed to meet Haig privately at 3:30 that afternoon.

The only detailed version of what took place in the afternoon meeting, which lasted fifty minutes, is Gerald Ford's, as provided to a House Judiciary subcommittee during his testimony on October 17, 1974—more than one month after his pardon of Nixon. He was only the second President to make such an appearance. Haig has never been questioned under oath on his role in the pardon, although he did say in a prepared statement on January 9, 1981, as he was beginning Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on his nomination to be secretary of state in the Reagan Administration: "At no time did I ever suggest in any way an agreement or 'deal' that Mr. Nixon would resign in exchange for a pardon from Mr. Ford. When I met alone with Vice President Ford on August 1, 1974, I went to that meeting to tell him of President Nixon's inclination to resign, and to emphasize to him that he had to be prepared to assume the presidency within a very short time perhaps within a day." Haig's statement buttressed that of President Ford before the Judiciary subcommittee. Ford testified that he first learned of the damaging June 23 tape recording during the afternoon meeting with Haig, who asked whether he was prepared to assume the presidency in a short time. Haig discussed six possible options, Ford testified, including the option of Nixon pardoning himself before resigning; the option of first pardoning all of the Watergate defendants, then himself, and then resigning; and, finally, the option of an eventual pardon of Nixon, if he should resign, by the new President. "General Haig wanted my views on the various courses of action," Ford testified, "as well as my attitude on the options of resignation. However, he indicated he was not advocating any of the options." Haig also informed him, Ford said in response to a question, that "it was his understanding from a White House lawyer that a President did have the authority to grant a pardon even before any criminal action had been taken against an individual . . . ." Ford said he requested time "to think": "As I saw it, at this point, the question clearly before me was, under the circumstances, what course of action should I recommend that would be in the best interest of the country?"

Ford, in an April interview for this article at his offices near Palm Springs, California, emphatically denied, as he had in his public statements and testimony over the past nine years, that he and Alexander Haig made a deal for the presidency on the afternoon of August 1.

Nonetheless, Ford's and Haig's accounts of their encounter, as provided to Congress, were far from complete. Ford's August 1 schedule called for him to drive with his wife to the Admiral's House, atop Observatory Hill, on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington. The Victorian building, which once served as quarters for the chief of naval operations, had been authorized by Congress to serve as the official home of the Vice President; Ford and his wife were meeting with a team of interior decorators and civil engineers. In a recent interview, one of Ford's aides recalled the sequence of events that afternoon:

"Ford was running late, as usual, and Mrs. Ford called me and asked whether he was going to make it. I went up to see what was the problem, and the receptionist was there. She said, 'Don't ask me and don't ask any questions.' I said, 'Let me see the appointment book.' She did, and there was the name Rogers Morton [Nixon's secretary of the interior]. I said, What's he doing here? It wasn't scheduled.' 'It's not Rogers Morton,' she said. 'It's General Haig, and he made me write Morton in the appointment book.'"

The aide went into Ford's outer room to wait. Thirty or so minutes later, Haig burst out. "What are you doing here?" he demanded. He said little else, but the aide knew that Haig was alarmed to find him there. "The real message was in his eyes." The aide went into the Vice President's office and found Ford "sitting in his chair, turned completely around and looking out the window directly at the West Wing of the White House." It took a few proddings before Ford responded to his hello, the aide recalls. "It was clear to me that whatever had transpired between him and Haig was of considerable moment. He was lost in his thoughts."

Ford's receptionist, Kathy E. McCarthy, kept careful records, and so the Haig appointment on August 1 remains on the official vice presidential log, made available for this article by the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, as being with Rogers Morton. Ford, in the interview, noted that his office had made public the August 1 meeting, and that he had discussed it in congressional testimony. He dismissed as "irrelevant" Haig's attempt to hide it. "What transpired in an outer office with a secretary," he said, "is not substantive."

The men who investigated Richard Nixon and prosecuted his aides present a very different analysis. In their Watergate experiences, they can cite no instances in which presidential or vice presidential logs were deliberately made inaccurate. Haig's actions on the afternoon of August 1, the lawyers agree, could not be considered routine or unimportant. It would be reasonable to infer, the lawyers say, that whatever was to take place in the meeting with Ford—in Haig's mind, at least—would not stand up to public scrutiny.

Haig was frequently able to meet off the record with others in the White House; on August 7, for example, he spent one hour with Vice President Ford in Ford's office with no record of the visit on Ford's official logs. Keeping incomplete logs and slipping in visitors for private meetings is an accepted way of life at the top of government, and is often essential to the conduct of foreign affairs. Deliberately ordering the falsification of records is another matter, however, and raises a basic question about Haig's intent on the afternoon of August 1: what guarantees were being made to Nixon in return for his immediate resignation—an abdication that would spare the nation, and the Republican Party, the prospect of a lengthy impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate? Nixon's main bargaining power at this point was a threat not to resign, with its dire implications for Republican re-election chances—that is to say, Gerald Ford's election chances-in 1976. Haig, asked recently to explain why he ordered the logs falsified, failed to respond.

Buzhardt discussed the meeting only once, in an inter­view published February 1, 1976, in The Washington Post. Asked about Ford's 1974 account of the August 1 meeting, in which Haig listed the various "options," including a pardon, Buzhardt told Walter Pincus, the reporter, "I don't know if Al was rattling off every idea, every possibility. I would assume that he would have discussed with President Nixon this matter before going to the Vice President, because it was my observation that he just didn't make decisions on his own without taking them up with the President, at this time or any other time." Buzhardt also said that he and others on the White House staff had initiated discussions with Nixon of a presidential pardon well before the July 24 Supreme Court decision that led to the disclosure of the smoking-gun tape. The decision prompted more discussion. On July 24, Buzhardt said, he proposed to Nixon, with Haig and James St. Clair, Nixon's Watergate attorney, listening on the telephone, that the entire Watergate issue could be "mooted" if Nixon pardoned all of the Watergate defendants and then himself. Buzhardt told Pincus that on the afternoon of August , moments before Haig's second visit with Ford, he and Haig once again discussed Buzhardt's opinion that a President could be pardoned for crimes not yet the subject of criminal indictment. (The story, which raised prima facie questions about whom Haig was representing at the August 1 meeting, attracted little interest, even from the editors of the Post, who decided not to publish it on the front page. "We were deep into a period of 'Let's forget it—Ford's a nice guy,'” Pincus says.)

In his memoirs, Robert Hartmann described his anxiety as he waited in his nearby office for Ford to finish his meeting with Haig. "Haig stayed for what seemed like an eternity," Hartmann wrote. After Hartmann was finally called in, Ford announced, "What I am going to tell you must not go any farther than this room." He explained quickly that Haig had discussed the seriousness of the June 23 transcript and the limited number of options available to Nixon. Ford said that "Haig had talked about the possibility of Nixon pardoning himself before resigning, which the lawyers thought he had the power to do, or of resigning and then being pardoned." Hartmann's account continued:

"Jesus!" I said aloud. To myself: So that's the pitch Haig wouldn't make with me present. Aloud again:
"What did you tell him?"
"I didn't tell him anything. I told him I needed time to think about it."
"You what?" I fairly shouted.
It was almost the worst answer Haig could have taken back to the White House. Far from telling nothing, Ford had told Haig that he was at least willing to entertain the idea—probably all that Haig and Nixon wanted to know.

Hartmann quoted himself as telling Ford, "I think you should have taken Haig by the scruff of the neck and the seat of his pants and thrown him the hell out of your office…And then you should have called an immediate press conference and told the world why."

Hartmann was still troubled at the close of the conversation: "It was as if he hadn't heard a word of my outburst. I could see that he had not yet grasped the monstrous impropriety of Haig's even mentioning the word 'pardon' in his presence."

The aide who saw Haig leave Ford's office then accompanied Ford to Observatory Hill, where the Vice President managed to sit calmly through a series of briefings from the engineers and decorators. At one point, the aide overheard Ford quietly tell his wife, "Betty, we are never going to live in this house."

The next morning, Ford told the House Judiciary subcommittee, he met with James St. Clair to consider Nixon's chances of being impeached, in view of the June 23 tape. "When I pointed out to him the various options mentioned to me by General Haig," Ford testified, "he told me he had not been the source of any opinion about presidential pardon power."

"After thought on the matter," Ford added, "I was determined not to make any recommendations to the President on his resignation .... For that reason ... I decided I should call General Haig the afternoon of August 2. I did make the call late that afternoon, and told him I wanted him to understand that I had no intention of recommending what the President should do about resigning or not resigning, and that nothing we had talked about the previous afternoon should be given any consideration in whatever decision the President might make. General Haig told me he was in full agreement with this position."

St. Clair, in an interview last March, was unable to confirm Ford's version of their meeting. "I have no recollection of talking about the new [June 23] tape with Ford, and I don't remember discussing a presidential pardon," he said. What he did recall was Ford's strange query as to whether there was any evidence indicating that the Nixon White House had been involved in the May, 1972, shooting of Alabama Governor George Wallace during the presidential primary campaign. "'Is there anything to it? Is there a problem? Was the White House behind the Wallace shooting.' I said no." (A year after the shooting, The Washington Post reported that Nixon had been worried at the time that the attempt on Wallace's life was linked to members of his re-election campaign. Nixon was said to have expressed the fear that if such a tie existed, "it could cost him
the election.") St. Clair also recalled a brief conversation about the likelihood of an economic recession.

Nothing in the meeting changed his basic view of Ford, St. Clair added. "What I saw of him confirmed everything I'd ever heard about the [vice presidency]. It'd be very hard to justify the office. I felt he had been completely bypassed. I couldn't figure out what he was doing."

Ford did not describe, in his House testimony, a conversation with Hartmann that took place immediately after St. Clair's visit on the morning of August 2. In his memoirs, Hartmann wrote that he asked John 0. Marsh, Jr., a former Republican congressman from Virginia, who was a senior aide to the Vice President, to come to Ford's office to listen to Ford's recapitulation of his meeting with Haig. It was then that Ford told of yet another contact with Haig. "'Betty and I talked it over last night,' he began," wrote Hartmann. "'We felt we were ready. This just has to stop; it's tearing the country to pieces. I decided to go ahead and get it over with, so I called Al Haig and told him they should do whatever they decided to do; it was all right with me.'”

"I couldn't believe my ears," Hartmann wrote. It was only after much argument from Hartmann and Marsh—and from Bryce Harlow, the former Nixon aide they called in to support them—that Ford made the telephone call to Haig in which he sought to disavow what had taken place the afternoon and night before. After that call, Hartmann wrote, he had a drink with Harlow and Marsh to toast "a good day's work." "We thought that was the end of it."

Ford, in his memoirs, wrote that it was Haig who initiated the telephone call the night before, which came shortly before 1:30 in the morning. "Nothing has changed," Ford quoted Haig as explaining. "The situation is as fluid as ever." He told Haig, Ford wrote, that he and his wife had decided that "we can't get involved in the White House decision-making process." Robert Hartmann recollects the conversation differently: "I know what most upset me was—the fact that Ford had called Haig," he wrote. "Why would Haig telephone the Vice President at 1:30 A.M. to say nothing had changed? And why, if Ford informed Haig that night that 'we can't get involved,' did he have to go through it all over again the next day for Harlow, Marsh and me?" In the interview for this article, Ford acknowledged Hartmann's differing recollection, but insisted, "Haig called me."

The aide who monitored Haig's telephones and handled many of his sensitive papers says that Nixon left the White House convinced that he had been promised a pardon by Ford—and more: the President felt assured that he would be permitted to take all of his papers and tapes with him. Others in the White House were also sure that an understanding had been reached-one that helped Nixon override the heated objections of his wife, Patricia, and his daughters, Julie and Tricia, and give up the presidency. Patricia Nixon fought his decision to the end. One aide re­calls sitting outside the President's office in the last days and overhearing Mrs. Nixon complain to her husband, "You've ruined my life." Another White House insider, a witness to many conversations in the offices of Henry A. Kissinger, the national security adviser, heard Haig tell Kissinger, with whom he consulted almost daily on Watergate matters, that, in the witness's words, "the President couldn't go when he was going to face a jail sentence-and so a deal would have to be struck." Haig and Kissinger were "laughing as they talked," the witness recalls. "They laughed a lot about very serious things." Kissinger, concerned about foreign affairs, was anxious that Nixon be forced out as soon as possible, the aide to Haig says: "I remember Henry telling Haig that it was time to 'bring down the curtain on this charade.'"

Haig’s goal over the next few days was complex: to end the "charade," and to do so in a way that protected not only Richard Nixon but his own standing with Gerald Ford. A new urgency was added early in August: scare talk about the need to bring out the Army's 82nd Airborne Division to protect the White House. There is evidence that Haig was behind much of this talk, which worked its way quickly to the Pentagon and—more important—to the Special Prosecutor's office.

In his memoirs, Nixon wrote of the crowds that had gathered in early August outside the White House gates on Pennsylvania Avenue. He was briefly exposed to their view on August 7, when crossing the private street between the White House and his hideaway office in the Executive Office Building. "The crowds waiting outside
surged forward when I came into view," Nixon wrote. "I could sense the tension of the Secret Service agents, and I moved as quickly as possible up the broad stone stairs and into the office."

In the second volume of his memoirs, Years of Upheaval, Henry Kissinger wrote of a meeting with Haig on August 2: "He told me that Nixon was digging in his heels [in terms of immediate resignation]; it might be necessary to put the 82nd Airborne Division around the White House to protect the President. This I said was nonsense; a Presidency could not be conducted from a White House ringed with bayonets. Haig said he agreed completely; as a military man it made him heartsick to think of the Army in that role; he simply wanted me to have a feel for the kinds of ideas being canvassed."

One of Haig's close aides describes the atmosphere: "There was a vehemence against us. We had people circling the White House. Only Abe Lincoln had faced such ugliness, such absolute vehemence, while in the presidency. The White House is not a fort. It's a tough place to get into, but not a tough place to take [by force]." There was real "concern" on the part of Nixon and Haig about the crowds outside the White House. "Haig was saying, 'Hey, maybe we need the 82nd Airborne.'" The aide insists that neither Nixon nor Haig was entertaining any thought of what he called "extra-legal stuff." Not everyone at the top of the government was so sure.

On December 22, 1973, a few weeks after Gerald Ford’s swearing-in as Vice President, Richard Nixon held his annual ceremonial meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. One member of the Joint Chiefs, a four-star officer, recalled in a recent interview that the President's performance was bizarre and alarming. "He kept on referring to the fact that he may be the last hope, the eastern elite was out to get him. He kept saying, 'This is our last and best hope. The last chance to resist the fascists [of the left].' His words brought me straight up out of my chair. I felt the President, without the words having been said, was trying to sound us out to see if we would support him in some extra-constitutional action. He was trying to find out whether in a crunch there was support to keep him in power . . . ." The senior officer decided after the meeting, he recalled, that the other members of the Joint Chiefs did not seem to share his fears. He made it a point to discuss the meeting with James Schlesinger, the Rand Corporation economist and defense analyst, who had been named secretary of defense by Nixon in May of 1973, in the first Watergate-inspired Cabinet shake-up. Schlesinger had also been upset by Nixon's language, but he was noncommittal.

In April of 1974, Joseph Laitin, a public-affairs official who had served in the Johnson White House, telephoned Schlesinger. Although Laitin was a liberal Democrat, the two had become friends early in the Nixon Administration, after Laitin was reassigned as a press official in the Bureau of the Budget, where Schlesinger was in charge of analyzing defense and intelligence programs. They had remained close as Schlesinger moved up in the government—to chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1971, director of the Central Intelligence Agency in February of 1973, and to the Pentagon in May. Laitin broached some of his fears: Was it possible for the President of the United States to authorize the use of nuclear weapons without his secretary of defense knowing it? What if Nixon, ordered by the Supreme Court to leave office, refused to leave and called for the military to surround the Washington area? Who was in charge then? Whose orders would be obeyed in a crisis? "If I were in your job," Laitin recalls telling Schlesinger, "I would want to know the location of the combat troops nearest to downtown Washington and the chain of command." Schlesinger said only, "Nice talking to you," and hung up.

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