The Nixon Pardon: Incentives Matter in Politics Too
By David Henderson
In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, Ken Gormley and David Shribman celebrate the 40th anniversary of President Ford’s pardon of Nixon. The piece is titled “The Nixon Pardon at 40: Ford Looks Better Than Ever.” They give basically three arguments:
1. By pardoning Nixon, Ford got Nixon to admit his guilt.
2. Ford made a deal with Nixon that in return for the pardon, Ford would keep Nixon’s papers rather than send them to Nixon’s residence, where there’s a good chance that they would have been shredded.
3. Although the American public was strongly against the pardon at the time, 12 years later, they were strongly in favor.
All 3 arguments above are (probably) correct. Certainly the third one is correct. Even if correct, are they enough? I don’t think so.
The authors don’t do a thorough cost/benefit analysis. They do only a benefit analysis. They ignore all the costs, except to Ford’s own electoral prospects.
But there were big costs. Here’s what I wrote after Ford died:
One of the late Gerald Ford’s favorite sayings during his first few weeks of office was that he was “a Ford, not a Lincoln.” Ford meant it as a statement of his humility. Ford’s humility was, in fact, one of his best character traits. But in pardoning Richard Nixon a month after becoming president, Ford showed himself to be very much like Lincoln. And in doing so, Ford set a bad precedent, making it easier for future presidents to break the law and to abuse the power of the presidency because he had increased the probability that they would not be held to account.
The first day of my economics classes, I lay out what I call “The Ten Pillars of Economic Wisdom.” Pillar number two is that incentives matter – incentives affect behavior. I point out that we tend to engage in behavior that is rewarded and to avoid behavior that is punished. Reward some bad behavior and refrain from punishing it, and you will get more of that behavior. That is why Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon was so destructive. It sent a strong signal that future presidents would not be made legally accountable for their behavior. And in making that decision, Ford did his part to contribute to “the imperial presidency.”
In paragraphs 1 through 7 of Ford’s speech, not quoted here, he talks about the laws, the uncertainties about what Nixon had done, and Ford’s obligations under the Constitution. They also contain a zinger that would have made a Ted Kennedy speechwriter blush. Kennedy, in his speech after Chappaquiddick, had only enough gall to say that his causing Mary Jo Kopechne to drown was a bad experience for the Kennedy family (“The last week has been an agonizing one for me, and for the members of my family;”). Ford’s made the plight of Richard Nixon the plight of the whole country. Ford stated, ‘Theirs [the Nixons’] is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part.” Gee. I didn’t know I had played a part. In 1973, I was a summer White House intern with Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisers; maybe I did something in my sleep.
And the predictable consequences of presidents knowing that virtually whatever they do, they are extremely unlikely to go to prison for it:
And what have been the consequences? Look at our current president. One of the most striking passages in Bob Woodward’s Bush at War and also one of the more believable passages is the following statement that Woodward quotes Bush as saying:
“I’m the commander – see, I don’t need to explain – I do not need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting part about being president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.” (pp.145-146.)