Consider healing lessons from our history
I. The Salient Issue
One method of grappling with what are the most vital issues America must resolve is to first eliminate those issues that blur our thought process. Five years of partisan ill will have sapped our nation’s psyche. Our health and our economy have suffered as we have found it more entertaining to castigate those who disagree with our political views than to make the hard choices required to battle COVID-19 and its devastation of our society. The events of Jan. 6 and our reactions to them will either continue us on our downward spiral, or perhaps America can remember and apply the healing lessons from our history.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Gerald Ford (1918-2006) would address the Jan. 6 attack on our Capitol Building differently. Kant, the great German legal philosopher, would hold it immoral to not require retribution against President Trump for the death and destruction that occurred after Trump’s call for a march on Congress, even though President Trump had only 14 days left to serve when the riot took place.
Kant’s position on the legal duty to punish is set forth in the following example. If we envision an island society that decided to dissolve itself completely and leave the island at a time prisoners sentenced to be executed were awaiting their fate, it would be immoral to leave the island without first carrying out the executions. Kant’s rationale for this seemingly needless act was that the blood guilt of the prisoners would attach to the general society if justice was not administered. An eye for an eye would be called for, according to Kant.
In contrast, President Ford invoked the wisdom and healing of Jesus when Ford issued a pardon to disgraced ex-President Richard Nixon (1913-1994) for Nixon’s role in covering up the burglary of Democratic National Committee Headquarters. Ford issued the pardon in September, only one month after Nixon resigned in August 1974 to avoid impeachment. Instead of retribution, Ford chose mercy, but not just for Nixon; America needed relief too.
Of course, neither revenge nor mercy can, by definition, be perfect justice. However, when it comes to crimes against the state there are larger issues than justice for individuals. The greater good may require a more involved response. Fortunately, we have the wisdom of our Founders and the courage of such leaders as President Ford to aid us in our decision-making process.
II. Separation of Powers
Our Founders built our Constitution on the general theory of three equal branches of government. The events since the election on Nov. 3 give evidence of the abiding legacy left for us in 1789.
After the Nov. 3 election, the Judicial Branch rendered numerous decisions that upheld the rule of law. Vice President Mike Pence in the Executive Branch has refused to use the 25th Amendment for political purposes, and the Legislative Branch has resisted attempts to usurp the will of the electorate to de-certify the Electoral College results. Our governmental framework has been stretched, but has accommodated pressures from many angles.
All three branches are working together to identify and prosecute those individuals who violated our seat of government with physical destruction and death. With the cooperation of numerous law enforcement agencies and the courts, along with the laws previously enacted by our federal and state legislatures, those who brought nooses, pipe bombs and twist-ties to their premeditated crimes are being identified; and if probable cause to commit crimes is shown, and guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is proven using due process of law, just punishment should result.
Gentle Reader, next week, if you are available, we can consider the differing treatments of individuals and the issue surrounding the legal concepts of attenuation of culpability. As to President or ex-President Trump, I respectfully submit that continuing to have our country divided about half and half concerning Donald Trump is akin to President Lincoln’s prescient declaration that a house divided against itself will not stand.
With that in mind, I submit for your consideration a Gavel Gamut article I wrote right after President Ford died, in which it was suggested Ford sacrificed his political career for his country in 1974. I have slightly modified the original article:
III. Pardon Me, President Ford
(First published Jan. 8, 2007)
President Gerald Ford died Dec. 26, 2006. In a life filled with public service, he will always be best known for his pardon of President Nixon in 1974. President Nixon had personally chosen Gerald Ford to replace the disgraced Vice President Spiro Agnew, who resigned in 1973 amid disclosures of bribery while Agnew was Governor of Maryland.
Vice President Ford served under President Nixon until Nixon resigned in August of 1974. One month after Nixon resigned, President Ford issued him a full pardon for any crimes Nixon may have committed while president.
At the time, many Americans, including me, were calling for a complete investigation of the Watergate debacle and especially Nixon’s involvement in it. It was a time of a media feeding frenzy and blood in the water. President Ford took the unprecedented step of going personally before Congress and flatly stating that President Nixon and then Vice President Ford had no deal to pardon Nixon if Nixon would resign.
I recall how doubtful I was when President Ford stated that he issued the pardon only to help our country to start healing from the loss of confidence caused by Watergate. Yet, after a few months I began to have second thoughts about my initial reaction to the pardon. I realized how much courage it took for President Ford to go straight into the anti-Nixon firestorm sweeping the United States.
As a country, we were almost paralyzed by the partisan fighting at home and the War in Vietnam. [Insert four years of partisan bickering during the Trump presidency and include at least one year of COVID-19.] We needed a new direction and a renewed spirit in 1974, just as we do today. Surely President Ford, with his twenty-two (22) years in Congress knew he was committing political suicide by not giving us our pound of flesh. Still, he put his country first. Of course, the country rewarded his sacrifice by booting him from office and electing President Jimmy Carter to replace him.
But during the campaign of 1976, when President Ford came to Evansville, Indiana, on April 23, I took our son, Jim, out of school and we went to the Downtown Walkway to see the man who put country above self. For while William Shakespeare almost always got his character analysis right, when it comes to President Ford, “The good he did lives after him.” Julius Caesar, Act III, scene ii.
Even President Jimmy Carter, one of America’s most courageous and best former presidents, said of his erstwhile political opponent President Ford: “President Ford was one of the most admirable public servants I have ever known.” And when it came to the pardon of President Nixon, Senator Ted Kennedy, while admitting that he had severely criticized the pardon in 1974, said that he had later come to realize that: “The pardon was an extraordinary act of courage that historians recognize was truly in the national interest.”