News & Politics

A Long-Awaited Reply

How a 37-year-old telegram to the President was saved from the dustbin of history.

September 8, 1974, was an especially chaotic day at the White House. That was the day that
Gerald Ford, barely a month into his term as President, gave
Richard Nixon a full pardon for any crimes he
may have committed in connection with the Watergate scandal. Ford’s
decision was widely criticized,
and the White House was flooded with angry reactions from the
public. One of them came from
Arthur Krause.

Krause’s daughter Allison was killed at Kent State
University on May 4, 1970, when National Guard members opened fire on
protesting Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia. Upon learning
of the pardon, Krause went to a Western Union office near his
home in Pittsburgh and fired off a telegram to Ford. It read,
in part: “You pardoned Nixon because you believe he and his
family have suffered enough. My wife and I lost our daughter
Allison [ . . . ] due to actions and words of Nixon.”

Krause was of the opinion—one not shared by many
Nixon historians—that the former President was personally responsible
the shootings. He wrote that Nixon had given the National Guard
the “right to kill,” and he said the President and his senior
staff had tried to block the convening of a federal grand jury.
Ford’s pardon covered “all offenses against the United States,”
not just those related to Watergate, so any hope Krause may
have had for seeing Nixon prosecuted vanished with the stroke
of the President’s pen.

Addressing Ford directly, Krause wrote, “Sir, you are less a man today than you were yesterday.” Krause signed the telegram
along with his wife, Doris.

The telegram arrived at the White House, where normally it would have been answered by staff on the President’s behalf and
then filed with other documents about the Nixon pardon. But Krause’s emotional message caught the eye of
Roland Elliott, the White House director of correspondence, who thought it deserved more than a form-letter reply.

Elliott passed the telegram to
George P. “Skip” Williams, an associate
counsel to the President, with a note: “Hasn’t the Kent State case been
reopened by Justice?” Elliott seemed
to be hoping the White House could update Krause on whether the
Justice Department had any new information on the events that
led to the death of his daughter and three other students.
Elliott put a red tag on his memo, indicating that Williams should
give the question high priority.

But the question was never answered. And Ford never replied to Krause’s telegram. It was placed in a file of unanswered mail,
and it sat there for the next 37 years.

The story would have ended there, if not for a meticulous, eagle-eyed archivist named
William H. McNitt, who spends his days combing
through thousands of pages of memos, correspondence, presidential
schedules, and other documents
at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, in Ann
Arbor, Michigan. On February 15, 2012, McNitt was conducting
what he calls a “systematic review of previously unreviewed
portions of the collection”—the historian’s equivalent of panning
for gold—and he came across Box 82 from the records of a
staffer in the White House Counsel’s Office. Inside was a folder
labeled “Unanswered Mail, September 1974 (1).” Most archivists
pass over these orphaned records, McNitt says. But he opened
the folder, and inside he saw Krause’s telegram. He immediately
grasped its significance.

McNitt traced the path of the old document, which
still bears faint pencil marks made by a White House staffer who
“my wife and I lost our daughter . . .” He followed the note
from Elliott to Williams, and concluded that the correspondence
must have gotten lost in the chaos surrounding the Nixon
pardon. “Williams and the rest of the staff in the Counsel’s Office
were overwhelmed with work,” McNitt says, “and never got around
to responding.”

The Ford Library gave a copy of the telegram to
The Washingtonian, and we got in touch with Laurel Krause, Allison’s sister. Reached by phone at her home in California one morning, Krause,
who never knew her father wrote the telegram, welled up as the text was read to her.

“That’s my dad!” she said, delighted, and at the same
time a little shocked and sad. At the time of the Nixon pardon, Laurel
says she was working on the Hill, as an intern for Senator Ted
Kennedy. She recalls that on the day a month earlier when the
Senate interns were supposed to hear a speech from then-Vice
President Ford, he had to cancel, because he was being sworn
in as president.

Laurel says that after her sister died, her father
began to investigate the events of that day in May 1970. He has since
but Laurel has continued the cause. She cofounded the Kent
State Truth Tribunal, which has collected information and testimony
about the shootings and has petitioned President Obama and
Attorney General Eric Holder to reexamine the case.

Laurel’s father never heard back from President Ford. But as it happens, McNitt, the former President’s tireless archivist,
may have some answers for the Krause family after all.

The question Elliott had asked about the Justice Department’s investigation is answered, McNitt says, by another collection
in the library. It resides among the papers of another Ford-era official,
J. Stanley Pottinger, who served as the
Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. Pottinger had
also worked in the Department
of Health, Education, and Welfare. In his records, McNitt found
approximately 2,000 pages of documents about an examination
of the shootings by both the departments where Pottinger had
worked. The government almost certainly relied on that information
to bring an indictment in March 1974 against eight National
Guardsmen. A trial began in October, the month after Ford pardoned
Nixon. A judge directed a verdict of acquittal in November.

And McNitt found something else. In those 2,000 pages
are records of “a number of telephone messages to Pottinger from Arthur
Krause concerning the investigation of his daughter’s death.”
Maybe Krause’s insistence helped push the government to seek
justice for Allison.

And so, nearly four decades later, Arthur Krause has
some measure of response. It’s not in the form of a letter from the
which we now know the White House felt Krause deserved. The
response comes instead from a quiet, diligent archivist, who stopped
to open an unremarkable box and sensed a moment in history, and
a family in pain.

View the PDF for the full telegram.