making local government more ethical

Ford's Pardon of Nixon: The Importance of Thoughtful Ethics Enforcement

Gerald Ford's passing revives the memory of one of the least remembered parts of the story of the Watergate affair: the pardon of Richard Nixon.

Remembering the pardon is important because it shows two important things about government ethics enforcement. First, how ethics rules are enforced is more important than the rules themselves. If rules are enforced with vengeance or if rules are enforced mechanically, they will not be respected except by those who desire vengeance instead of justice and those who do not understand the need for flexibility in enforcement.

Punishment of ethical wrongdoing has three principal goals. Two are direct: punishing a wrongdoer and causing potential wrongdoers to feel they may not get away with misconduct. The third goal is indirect: making the public feel safe with, and good about, the democratic system. Resigning from the presidency fulfills the first two goals very well. A trial would have put enormous stress on the democratic system and on the public. Unnecessary to fulfill the first two goals, it would have undermined the third.

This is something that the Republicans who went after Bill Clinton clearly did not learn. The result of their seeking vengeance at the expense of the public was that they undermined the democratic system by making everything seem partisan. This problem has not gone away and has put off voters, especially young people who have known no other situation. Our democracy is the worse for what they did, and the better for what Ford did.

The second thing we can learn from Ford's pardon of Nixon is that, because there is so little honest talk about ethics enforcement (and so much dishonest and ignorant talk), and because ethics enforcement is so often handled badly, most people will not appreciate or recognize a job well done. When enforcement is done thoughtfully and fairly, it will be twisted by those who wanted a different result. But when the dust clears, fair, thoughtful enforcement can, one hopes, guide future fair, thoughtful enforcement.