During Ford's first press conference, correspondent Helen Thomas, asking the opening question, wanted to know whether Ford agreed with Rockefeller that Richard Nixon should have immunity from prosecution. In retrospect, it seems surprising that more significance was not given to the new president's response: he expressed the "hope that our former President, who brought peace to millions, would find it for himself," words received as coming from a healer wanting to avoid controversy. Nevertheless, just before the conference ended, he refused to rule out the possibility that he might grant a pardon even before a trial could take place. That, too, seemed reasonable: he wanted to avoid saying anything that might impede the legal process. Newsweek magazine soon reported that 58 percent of the American people polled in its survey opposed any special immunity for Nixon.
Without any advance warning, Ford announced an unconditional pardon for Nixon on Sunday morning, 8 September. That one stroke destroyed the credibility of Ford's presidency. One immediate result was the resignation of Jerald terHorst as press secretary. (TerHorst was replaced by television newsman Nessen.) Overnight, according to a Gallup poll commissioned by the New York Times, Ford's level of popular approval dropped from 71 percent to 50 percent. It was virtually impossible to convince the public that the pardon had not resulted from a secret, if not corrupt, deal. Not only did public opinion surveys reflect powerful anger about pardoning Nixon before he could even be indicted but, by Ford's own admission, there were only seven hundred favorable letters among the four thousand received by the White House within the next few days. The Ford honeymoon was over.
In October, Ford himself testified before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Criminal Justice in what may have been an unprecedented presidential visit to Capitol Hill. The televised hearing, chaired by Congressman William Hungate of Missouri, was clearly his forum for taking his case to the American people. Ford revealed that the matter had been discussed with General Haig before the resignation but denied that he had made any commitment. "I want to assure you, members of this subcommittee, members of Congress, and the American people, there was no deal, period, under no circumstances," he exclaimed at one point, pounding on the table. "I wanted to do all I could to shift our attentions from the pursuit of a fallen President to the pursuit of the urgent needs of a rising nation," he explained. Nixon, he held, had already paid a sufficient price, and his poor health had been another consideration. And, furthermore, the nation could ill afford a legal circus that might go on for several years. It was time to leave all that behind and go on with the nation's business.
Serious questions have been raised about Ford's denial of a "deal" or "understanding." There is no doubt about the attention given to the pardon option both before and after Nixon's resignation, with Alexander Haig in charge of the arrangements. Ford was a central figure in helping to derail the inquiry by Congressman Wright Patman into the connection between the money found on the Watergate burglars and the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CREEP).
"Nixon had Ford totally under his thumb," Alexander P. Butterfield, a former Nixon White House appointments secretary, told Seymour Hersh. But Ford held out before he would deliver: he wanted, as Hersh reports, "some concessions from Nixon on the relocation of his papers and tape recordings." Some White House aides also pressed for an act of contrition from Nixon as a prerequisite to a pardon. Hersh also reported that Nixon, impatient and concerned that the understanding would collapse, telephoned Ford on the night of 7 September to warn that he would make public a claim that he had been promised the pardon in exchange for relinquishing the presidency. The new president made his announcement the following morning. The arrangement also involved giving Nixon custody of the papers and tapes, which would be housed in a government storage facility near San Clemente, California.
In what was a masterful example of bad timing, Ford announced the specifics of his amnesty proposal for Vietnam draft evaders only eight days later. Evaders who wanted vindication would have to swear allegiance and perform some low-paid alternate service. Comparisons with the Nixon pardon were inevitable. The discredited ex-president had gotten off scot-free; he had not even been compelled to admit his guilt. A more conservative view was expressed by Barry Goldwater, who charged that Ford's amnesty plan was a "step that is like throwing mud in the faces of the millions of men who had served this country."