The Saturday Night Massacre, forty years ago yesterday, was critical in the public story of Watergate; it marked the point at which impeachment of the President of the United States became part of the normal political conversation. Indeed, one might say that it marks the point where the standard for a major presidential scandal became impeachment; ever since, from Iran-Contra to Lewinsky to, I don't know, whatever they're talking up on Fox News these days, everyone has been a lot quicker to bring up impeachment than they ever were before Richard Nixon needed three Attorneys General to fire a special prosecutor.
The Massacre was also one of the best illustrations of Richard Neustadt's key point about presidential power: that presidents do not, and can not, govern by command as a normal way of going about their business.
The problem for Nixon was that he was saddled with a special prosecutor who was, in his view, overreaching his mandate (and, at any rate, threatened the presidency by attempting to obtain White House tapes which would prove Nixon guilty of offenses he would surely be impeached and convicted for if they became public). Now, Archibald Cox was supposed to be independent, but he was still part of the Department of Justice. Could Nixon either get him to back off, or, even better, get rid of him?
In the event, the answer was: only by command. Persuasion utterly failed. Which ultimately meant that Nixon couldn't get what he wanted -- relief from a truly independent prosecutor.
Remember, "persuasion" for Neustadt doesn't really mean convincing someone that the president's preferences are good in some abstract way; it merely means convincing someone that to do what the president wants is in his or her own self-interest at that moment. That could involve an appeal to the good of the nation, but it's more likely to be done by some combination of bargaining and the sort of influence that the president's scope gives him. That is, the head of an agency might do what the president wants in order to receive budget support in the future, or the promise of a promotion to a bigger job, or perhaps threats to a political ally. Whatever is available; and while presidents have very limited powers of command, they have nearly limitless tools to use for this kind of persuasion. If, that is, they know how to use their office.
What Neustadt tells us is that the structure of the presidency and the executive branch is set up that way. Part of that is because command only works in particular circumstances; without fairly unusual conditions (Neustadt identifies five), it doesn't work at all. Part of it is that executive branch officials must obey multiple masters -- even when the president can technically fire them (as was the case for the Attorney General), they can often nevertheless ignore what he wants. Indeed, that's part of what happened here. Elliot Richardson simply refused to do what Nixon wanted, meaning that eventually Nixon needed to turn his lower-case order into a proper Presidential Order that Richardson could no longer ignore. And yet even here, Richardson resisted and resigned.
Why? Because Richardson had made a promise to the Senate -- that he would appoint a special prosecutor and let him do his work. Why? Because the Senate insisted; they would not confirm him otherwise. Why did Richardson keep his word to the Senate over his loyalty to the president? Because he was the sort of man who would do that. And why did Nixon appoint such a man to such a post, anyway? Because the politics of the situation required it during a time that spring when the outgoing Attorney General and the previous one were both implicated in wrongdoing, and during a time when the independence of Justice Department investigations of White House wrongdoing was under fire.
Nor is this the only time when executive branch refusal to go along with presidential plans mattered in the Watergate saga. Indeed: the whole thing started when Nixon's ("Huston") plan for domestic surveillance was shot down by the FBI, leading Nixon to bring an alternate version of that plan inside the White House. And while presidents generally can get their orders followed within the White House, it's the regular executive branch departments and agencies which have the expertise to carry out policy successfully.
Neustadt calls command -- director orders, rather than persuasion -- a "last resort" for a president:
Not only are these "last" resorts less than conclusive, but they are also costly...[D]rastic action rarely comes at bargain rates. It can be costly to the aims in whose defense it is employed. It can be costly, also, to objectives far afield (27).So he wrote, over a decade before Nixon's attempt at command was successful at ridding him of Archibald Cox, but at a terrible price indeed.