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The last word

Watergate, and the pardon of Richard Nixon, is still shadowing the principals, as I learned today digging into NBC presidential historian Michael Beschloss' fascinating interview with Jerry Ford -- to be published in Newsweek on Sunday.  (Editor's note: Mr. Beschloss' Ford interview is available today on the Web. Just click here.)

Beschloss sat down with Ford in the summer of 1995 at his Beaver Creek, Colo., summer home. Ford was 82, and clearly relaxed and open. He criticized the rightward turn of his party, George Herbert Walker Bush's reluctance to stand up to the right wing on abortion rights, and Ronald Reagan's refusal to campaign for him in 1976. Two decades later, Ford, ever the nuts-and-bolts politician, could still recite the specific states in which Reagan could have helped him win the presidency - Ohio, Mississippi, Louisiana. In fact, he said he would have defeated Jimmy Carter if Reagan hadn't, in his view, sat out the general election campaign (except for one brief joint appearance in his home town of Los Angeles).

Even more contentious -- Ford's thoughts on his former Chief of Staff Alexander Haig's role in the Nixon pardon.  Bluntly put, he thought Haig - a holdover from the Nixon White House - had been disloyal, had in fact gone behind his back to tip off Nixon that Ford was going to grant the pardon in any case - so that Nixon didn't have to admit anything to get it. Subsequently, that's exactly what happened: Nixon's representatives refused to budge during talks with White House lawyers, and Ford granted the pardon. It remains a significant issue for historians, who say Ford should at least have waited for some admission of guilt, or an actual indictment, before granting the pardon.

The charge of Haig's double-dealing was actually first made by former Ford aide James Cannon in his 1994 biography "Time and Chance." But until these comments to Newsweek, Ford's views were not known.

Asked by Beschloss why he did not demand an admission of guilt before granting Nixon the pardon, Ford said: "Nixon was adamant. I felt so strongly that I had to get this damn thing off my desk, nitpicking about what he was going to say became less and less important."

Ford went on to say: "In reading Jim's book, I was shocked and saddened by what the role of Al Haig turned out to be. At the time, I had no idea. I assumed he was totally loyal to me. He worked for me! I understood he had worked for Nixon, but I had to assume he was loyal to me...The Cannon book as to the role of Haig surprises me. I'm sure what Haig apparently transmitted to Nixon convinced Nixon that he didn't have to stand - that he didn't have to make an outright admission of guilt."

Called by NBC today, Haig said: "I never said such a thing, that's absolute hogwash. It's mind boggling to me where this nonsense comes from. There was no discussion whatsoever. I was not involved with any of the decision making involved in the pardon. I never had anything to do with the pardon.  The president announced the decision, much to my surprise."

But the power of Jerry Ford's comments to Newsweek may indeed be history's last word on the most controversial pardon in American history.