America needs Truth and Accountability First, Before Reconciliation
Nearly forty years ago, in 1973 as a 12 year old, I became fascinated by the Watergate hearings. On a family vacation that summer in Northern Michigan I couldn’t keep my eyes off those hearings and watched each day as my siblings played in Lake Michigan. It was from that moment I decided I wanted to get involved in politics, and I have been ever since. Today in an interesting synchronicity I am back in Michigan watching the January 6th hearings, and am struck by the incredible import of what unfolded and is unfolding in America today.
As I was transfixed by the compelling testimony and facts laid out in the first two of a series of hearings, I have begun to think about fellow Michigander former President Gerald Ford who represented the Grand Rapids area in Congress, and then ascended to the Vice-Presidency and ultimately the Presidency when Richard Nixon resigned in 1974. Ford ultimately gave Nixon a blanket pardon, and by himself and many others, this was described as getting past our national nightmare, restoring trust, and healing our nation. In my view, this is an oft repeated myth because Ford’s pardon did none of those things.
There are many suggesting today that President Trump should not be prosecuted by the Justice Department for his part in the worst insurrection in our nation since the Civil War. In fact, many are saying that if Trump were to be prosecuted, then President Biden should pardon him, like Ford did Nixon, in order to heal our nation and get past the current nightmare. I think this is completely wrong and incredibly destructive to our nation which is supposed to be based on the rule of law and an adherence to our Constitution.
These well-intentioned folks repeat the myth of the Ford pardon of Nixon as a rational for their current views on either not holding Trump accountable or pardoning him if he is prosecuted. When one looks back at what occurred in the aftermath of the Ford pardon, polling data shows that not only did trust in government not rise, it steadily fell over the next ten years. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2022/06/06/public-trust-in-government-1958-2022/. And the healing didn’t occur as a majority of Americans turned away from Ford and selected a relatively inexperienced newcomer in Jimmy Carter in large part because voters were angry about Ford’s pardon of Nixon.
Further, in 1973 a politicized Nixon Justice Department in the midst of the Watergate scandal, through the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), issued a memorandum stating that a President in office could not be indicted for a crime. This corrupted opinion, with no basis in federal court decisions, has been relied about since then in various administrations to lay the claim that an incumbent President can not be held accountable in our criminal justice system. As Nixon said in an interview in 1977, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”
The pardon of Nixon, and the OLC opinion saying a sitting President can’t be indicted for a crime, opened the door to the dangerous idea that Presidents are above the law and can basically get away with anything. It wasn’t long after Nixon’s Watergate scandal, that President Reagan became embroiled in another scandal, the Iran Contra affair, and faith in government fell again as a President pushed the bounds of ethics and the law believing he could not be held accountable. This “above the law” attitude continued through the Clinton and Bush presidencies, and resulted in a President Trump who acted with lawless abandon in enabling and instigating an insurrection at the US Capitol.
One can look even further back in our history to the aftermath of the Civil War to show when leaders who participate in anti-democratic actions and aren’t held accountable, the festering cancer of injustice only grows and manifests in different ways. Before he was killed, President Lincoln wanted to heal the nation after the War, and had planned a beneficent but clear reconstruction of the southern states in order to align them with the law and constitution and live up to the idea of justice and equality for all. He had planned for confederate foot soldiers to go back to their communities and restart their lives, but that leaders of secession must be held accountable and not hold positions of power. In fact, his desire was that these treasonous secessionist leaders, not be hung or executed, but be either exiled or be voluntarily permitted to leave the country. Many did, but too many stayed because of what happened in April of 1865.
After Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson, who was an avowed racist and segregationist, had an entirely different idea. He pardoned nearly every leader of secession and the confederate war effort, ended most reconstruction efforts, and did nothing to stem the tide of the rise of the terrorist KKK organization and allowed states and communities to discriminate against blacks and keep them from having full rights as citizens including voting. It took nearly another one hundred years to correct some of the problems that should have been dealt with through accountability in the time period after the Civil War. In fact, as I am sure made Lincoln roll over in his grave, many secessionist leaders and officers were allowed to serve in Congress years later.
Yes, as an American who loves his fellow citizens, I believe in reconciliation today and the ideals and promise of our sacred union, but the path to reconciliation first has to go through discovery of the truth, an acceptance of responsibility for destructive actions, and a level of accountability for those who led others astray. Current events, and our history, has shown that injustice and autocracy will only multiply, root itself deeper, and damage our country and our democracy in the decades ahead if we jump too quickly to reconciliation and pass over accountability. It is time we show no one is above the law no matter position or power, and this is especially true of a President whose solemn obligation is to protect our Constitution.
For me, and so many other Americans, this is why the January 6th investigation and hearings are so crucial, and why the Attorney General must seriously consider prosecuting the President and other leaders who were involved in the insurrection. And as voters, we absolutely need to vote in the elections ahead with the idea that we too can hold leaders and political parties accountable for their actions which undermined our precious democracy. Otherwise, if you pardon the criminal behavior and let folks off the hook, it will once again give them a free pass to continue doing what destroys what makes us great. It will harm America significantly in the long term, if we don’t bring accountability in the short term.