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An aide to Ford followed his conscience

While accolades are showered on President Gerald R. Ford, it is fitting to honor the rare combination of human understanding and honesty of Jerry ter Horst.

A wartime Marine veteran, ter Horst covered Ford's first political ventures as a staffer for the Grand Rapids, Mich., Press.

Ter Horst became President Ford's press secretary in the summer of 1974, leaving the Detroit News bureau to take the job.

Without warning, Ford pardoned his predecessor Richard M. Nixon of any federal crime he might have committed in the Watergate scandals.

The next day, ter Horst quit his coveted White House job. Ter Horst's letter was a model of respect, charity and moral principle -- not uncommon qualities among men of "The Greatest Generation." Here are excerpts:

"I cannot in good conscience support your decision to pardon former President Nixon even before he has been charged with the commission of any crime . . .

"I do not know how I could credibly defend that action in the absence of a like decision to grant absolute pardon to the young men who evaded Vietnam military service as a matter of conscience and the absence of pardons for former aides and associates of Mr. Nixon who have been charged with crimes -- and imprisoned -- stemming from the same Watergate situation . . .

"It is impossible to conclude that the former president is more deserving of mercy than persons of lesser station in life whose offenses have had far less effect on our national well-being."

Ter Horst later told Richard Ryan, a Detroit News colleague, he didn't think that pardons were due the draft evaders or the other Watergate conspirators any more than Nixon.

"I wasn't trying to mount a movement," ter Horst said. "I wasn't angry (but) I have a bottom line on some things and this was my bottom line."

More recently, ter Horst told an interviewer that he also objected to the pardon because Nixon never sought forgiveness or voiced contrition for what he had done.

Nixon resigned because he was impeached by the House and knew the Senate would have convicted and removed him.

Lacking a pardon, Nixon could have been tried for perjury, bribery, obstruction of justice, subornation of federal witnesses and manipulation of federal security agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service.

Ter Horst, now retired in North Carolina, told me he understands Ford's reasons for the pardon but that he does not now and never did approve of the pardon.

Ford's pardon still reverberates. A month after Ford declared no president was above the law, he gave Nixon blanket protection from it. At a moment of crisis, Ford gave the presidency a regal quality the founders never intended: Impunity -- meaning, immunity from criminal punishment.

With the evidence collected by the Congress and the courts, Nixon surely would have been convicted and probably imprisoned.

What would have been the result of seeing Nixon confined for a few months at the minimum security facility at Allenwood, Pa., where his aides went?

The imprint of Nixon behind a security fence might have deterred Ford's successors from playing hob with the law and lying to the American people.

How many crises like Iran-Contra under President Reagan and the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the Clinton administration might have been avoided?

Would President George W. Bush have toyed with the truth to send 3,000 military personnel to their deaths in Iraq, and twisted the law to suit himself, if Ford had let the justice system finish the job?

Ter Horst took the tough way out.

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