It is with some frustration that I read the laudatory eulogies for ex-president Ford. Ford, we can all agree, was a nice man and a definite improvement over the criminal Richard Nixon. His niceness--and plain-spoken honesty--was a tonic the country needed after Nixon and Agnew.
But the idea that Ford's pardon of Nixon spared the country unnecessary pain and that the act of pardoning a president for any and all acts committed while in office was somehow noble goes beyond the usual stricture that we not speak ill of the dead and into a sort of eulogizing that ignores the real consequences of Ford's act.
Ford "spared" us all the necessity to look Nixon's peculiarly anti-American criminality in the face--and the opportunity to snuff it out forever. Nixon, we should recall, was a prime example of the "Imperial Presidency." Nixon believed that the President could legally do things that would be criminal if done by anyone else. In effect he endorsed the regal idea the the president embodied the state and that, literally, his word was law. He could not break the law because he was the law. As he famously told David Frost: "when the president does it, that means it is not illegal."
This is precisely the position that King George III took in repressing American aspirations prior to and during the revolutionary period. Nothing could be less American in its spirit. From the invasion of Cambodia, to the invasion of a critic's psychiatrist's office, to the burglary of the opposing political party, to suborning perjury when he was caught: any decision he made could be justified by his belief that the security of the country depended upon his politics and policies.
Following Watergate the country that hounded him out of office was in a mood to hang him high. They wanted to condemn what he'd done and make sure that no man thought himself above the law. The personal ugliness and bigotry of the man which has seeped out over the last 30 years in dribs and drabs would have been revealed in all its grotesquery at a time and in a circumstance which would have demanded its punishment and the institution of legal standards which would have made it clear that no man embodies the Republic--and that to think so is to court the country's contempt and condemnation.
That is what Ford "saved" us from doing. His blanket pardon of the man who made him President saved us from having the moment that would have destroyed the Imperial Presidency.
We got, instead, Ronald Reagan, whose convoluted Iran-Contra shenanigans wrecked our relations in the Middle East and have lead directly to the current mess in Iraq. That administration backed a scheme to fund illegal support of Contra death squads with income from secret sales of advanced weaponry to Iran. (The picture of Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam took place at a moment when the US had abandoned Iran and was supporting and supplying Saddam in his war against Iran and his hostility to Syria.) Reagan initially lied about the affair and then admitted that the arms sales had taken place. Reagan's subsequent deification by the right wing of his party has suppressed any real examination of the still-secret details of this affair and had the effect of reawakening the idea that whatever the President did had to be OK.
Finally we have President Bush, who openly and nonchalantly claims Imperial status for his decisions. Apparently the president cannot commit an illegal act, simply because he is The President. (This is often called by proponents the "unitary executive" and was first suggested by Samuel Alito during the Reagan administration. Such a man Bush now conveniently makes a Justice...) During his presidency Bush has repeatedly made the claim that he only has to enforce the parts of laws he likes, that he can abrogate fundamental treaties like the Geneva Conventions at his whim, that he can torture folks at his pleasure and need not answer to anyone. The list of outrages is long. And it is not just Democrats who complain...the Cato Institute's condemnation of his violations of the Constitution is particularly stinging.
There was a moment in American history when we were primed to reassert a real Republic; one in which no man embodied the state and no one was allowed to consider themselves above the law.
Ford robbed us of that moment. No one, on the left or the right, not even when eulogizing the dead, should applaud that act.