In wake of Nixon pardon, Ford visited Pittsburgh

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When Air Force One, carrying President Gerald R. Ford, touched down at Greater Pittsburgh International Airport on the morning of Monday, Sept. 9, 1974, the short national honeymoon was over.

Sworn in as the 38th president of the United States after the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon only one month earlier, Mr. Ford had gotten off to a good start with the American people by proving himself to be an open, honest, respectable man.

Then, on Sunday morning, Sept. 8, he stunned the nation with his "full, free and absolute pardon" of his predecessor.

While Washington and the rest of the world spent the next 24 hours wrestling with the ramifications of the pardon, Secret Service agents were in Pittsburgh, preparing for the president's visit there the next day.

Mr. Ford's trip, to address the sixth International Conference on Urban Transportation at the Hilton Pittsburgh, Downtown, had been scheduled for some time, and administration officials decided to go through with it in spite of the announcement of the pardon.

But it was a volatile time. Sign-carrying protesters, angered by a pardon for Mr. Nixon but none for Vietnam draft evaders, lined the streets outside the Hilton. There was talk that the pardon was part of a deal and that other Nixon administration figures caught up in Watergate also might be pardoned.

The Secret Service made certain that the president was not exposed to the furor. Mr. Ford was whisked into the Hilton ballroom, where he delivered short, prepared remarks, and then hurried back out. There was no occasion for reporters' questions, and no comment on the pardon was offered. Very few people outside the Hilton even saw him.

As reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the next morning: "It must have been the smallest turnout for a new president since James Monroe made the first presidential visit to Pittsburgh back in 1817."

Cary Jones, 53, an attorney in Washington, Pa., was a student at Washington and Jefferson College at the time. A doctor's appointment in the Jenkins Arcade brought him Downtown, and he decided to join the crowd outside the Hilton -- partly because he was "furious with the pardon."

"I didn't have a sign or anything," he said yesterday. "But if I'd gotten the chance I would have asked him 'Why?' "

He didn't get the chance.

"President Ford came out and walked slowly past me," he said. "But I recall that -- to his credit -- he didn't enter the limo at curbside, which would have been the easy thing to do. Instead, he walked around the limo to the other side and faced the protesters.

"I thought it was a classy gesture," said Mr. Jones, who two years later voted for Mr. Ford for president.

From the Hilton, Mr. Ford's motorcade sped to the airport. But the president had one more stop to make -- at schools in Moon -- at the invitation of John Costanzo, principal of Carnot Elementary School.

"I was talking to my secretary and we were discussing that he was coming to town," Mr. Costanzo recalled, "and she said, 'All the important people who come to town come to the airport, and none of them ever come to the school.'

"So we sent a telegram inviting him to the school."

It read: "Dear Mr. President: When you arrive at the Air Force base in Pittsburgh on Monday, Sept. 9, you will be about five minutes away from our school. It would be a great thrill to all of us if you would stop in and visit for a few minutes. Most of us have never seen a real live president. The students at Carnot School."

To Mr. Costanzo's surprise, officials at the White House liked the idea. But there were conditions.

First and foremost, the visit had to be kept a secret. Mr. Costanzo had to ask for permission to inform his supervisor, but no one else was to know.

The Secret Service sent agents to look over the school grounds on Saturday. And even then there was no firm commitment to a presidential visit. It was tentative.

Initially, Mr. Costanzo had been given the impression that the president would emerge from his motorcade and enter the school.

But later, he was informed that officials preferred the idea of a sidewalk greeting for the students outside. It also was decided that Mr. Ford would drop by the neighboring middle school and Moon High School.

On the day of the visit, Mr. Costanzo assembled the teachers, some of whom had already guessed that something was up when they saw barriers being erected in the morning. Then it was time to round up the children.

"We had about 20 minutes before his arrival," Mr. Costanzo said in an interview in January. "Just enough time [for the children] to make up a couple of signs that said 'Welcome to Carnot! Thank you for coming.' "

None of the signs mentioned the pardon and the faces in the crowd were all smiling.

The president's arrival was a bit of a whirlwind.

He exited his limousine, shook hands with some of the students and exchanged pleasantries.

Two students -- a boy named Karl Krametz, 5, and John Costanzo, 6, the principal's son -- presented Mr. Ford with a "Carnot Cougar" T-shirt and a white Moon High School football jersey, No. 74.

Mr. Costanzo had a chance to greet the president and dared to go where few others had.

"I shook his hand, and I welcomed him to the school and thanked him," he said. "And then I said to him -- at that time it was the Nixon fiasco -- and I said to him that I agreed with his offer to pardon.

"He said, 'Thank you for your confidence. I'm sure President Nixon would appreciate what you said here.' "

And then he was off, waving and smiling to the children as he left.

Post-Gazette reporter Lawrence Walsh, then a writer with The Pittsburgh Press, wrote: "Mr. Ford must have enjoyed himself, too, because he spent more time talking with the students than he had to the transportation conference."

Carnot Elementary is closed now. Mr. Costanzo, 79, is retired, living in Coraopolis after 25 years as a principal in Moon. His son, who lives in Massachusetts, barely remembers meeting Mr. Ford.

But Mr. Costanzo recalled the visit proudly.

"Every once in a while, I run into kids and they tell me how much they appreciated that," he said.

Mr. Ford returned to Pittsburgh several times after that, especially in 1976 when he was running against Jimmy Carter. Mr. Costanzo voted for Mr. Ford.

"I'm a Democrat and anti-Bush," he said. "But I just thought President Ford did a good job, for being an interim and being thrown into the mix. And I thought that he wasn't a strong president, but at the same time he sort of did quiet things down for us."

As far as the pardon was concerned, Mr. Costanzo still thinks it was the right thing for Mr. Nixon and the country.

"I don't think any president should have to go through that stuff," he said.

Tony Tye, Post-Gazette
John Costanzo, of Moon, was principal of Carnot Elementary School when U.S. President Gerald Ford visited on Sept. 9, 1974. In a photo taken that day, Costanzo is in the center in front of the president.
Click photo for larger image.
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Demonstrators showed their disapproval of President Ford's pardon of ex-President Nixon during his visit to Pittsburgh on Sept. 9, 1974, the day after he signed the pardon.
Click photo for larger image.

Dan Majors can be reached at dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456.


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