Prosecution among Friends: Presidents, Attorneys General, and Executive Branch Wrongdoing

By David Alistair Yalof | Go to book overview

Preface

Our Constitution works…
our great republic is a government
of laws and not of men
.”

—Pres. Gerald Ford, August 9, 1974

Moments after taking the presidential oath of office on August 9, 1974, the thirty-eighth president of the United States offered the above words of assurance about a constitutional system that had just survived the ordeal of a twice-elected president’s being forced to resign in disgrace. In the case of the Watergate scandal that eventually paralyzed the White House and much of official Washington, President Nixon and other high-level officials had been identified and then held politically accountable for their actions. Yet to what end? The vast majority of citizens who had watched the Watergate scandal unfold over the previous two years might well have reached a conclusion opposite to President Ford’s about the effectiveness of the constitutional system. After all, the Constitution Ford was celebrating had failed to prevent such high-level wrongdoing from occurring in the first place. Meanwhile, the challenge of ferreting out such corruption had consumed the attention of two US attorneys’ offices, two (and eventually three) special prosecutors, three attorneys general, one acting attorney general, and numerous deputy and assistant attorneys general, as well as countless lawyers and staff. Moreover, just as Ford was assuming the presidency, there remained serious doubts as to whether the disgraced former president would ever be held criminally liable for his actions. President Ford ended that final piece of speculation when he controversially pardoned his predecessor less than a month later.

Perhaps the newly sworn-in president intended his words about the Constitution as a rhetorical flourish—an eloquent, Lincolnesque cover for his own personal despair at the dilemma that faces any republic seeking to hold its public officials accountable within the strictures of a formal separation-ofpowers framework. Several crucial challenges recur in this context: (1) How can the president of the United States and other high-level executive-branch officials be held accountable for illegal or unethical conduct by prosecutors and

-vii-

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