Sunday, October 20, 2013

October 19, 1973

On a day in which the focus is far from him (although not too far, given that the tapes issue is in large part at that point about proving him right), John Dean finally gives up his effort to avoid prison. He pleads guilty to obstructing justice, accepting a prison term while promising continued complete cooperation.

The main drama, however, is in the continuing confrontation between Nixon and Special Prosecutor Cox, with Attorney General Richardson still in the middle. White House Chief of Staff Al Haig and various lawyers are acting for the president, but Nixon is actively scheming, trying to find a way out -- either to get Cox to accept conditions that would keep the tapes from him, or, more likely, to resign.

Nixon surprises everyone by choosing not to appeal the tapes case to the Supreme Court, instead moving to set a trap for Cox. He secretly flew Sam Ervin and Howard Baker into Washington from trips to their states, and asked them to approve the Stennis compromise; as Emery puts it, Nixon "apparently" acted as if "Cox and Richardson had agreed to it." Nixon prepares to release the compromise, including orders for Cox to seek no other tapes, as a done deal -- Cox would be seen as unreasonable, and if (as Richardson, at one point, had predicted to the White House) Cox resigned over it, Nixon would get what he wanted and, for a change, look like the reasonable one. Or at least that's the plan. Cox, instead, goes straight to the press:


In my judgement, the President is refusing to comply with the court decrees. A summary of the content of the tapes lacks the evidentiary value of the tapes themselves. No steps are being taken to turn over the important notes, memoranda and other documents that the court orders require. I shall bring these points to the attention of the court and abide by its decision. The President's direction to make no further attempts [transcript missing] obtain tapes, notes, or memoranda of Presidential conversations will apply to all such matters in the future. The instructions are in violation of the promises which the Attorney General made to the Senate when his nomination was confirmed.

For me to comply to those instructions would violate my solemn pledge to the Senate and the country to invoke judicial process to challenge exaggerated claims of executive privilege. I shall not violate my promise.
I cannot be a party to such an arrangement. I shall have a more complete statement in the near future.


It's a wonderfully constructed release. He reminds the nation (or at least the press and the active players in this drama) about the stakes. He reminds Richardson of his own commitment to the Senate. He also flips Nixon's use of Ervin and Baker, rhetorically putting the Senate (which, recall, was in rare positive repute after the Ervin hearings) on his own side. And he throws down a clear frame on the fight: this is about a president defying the courts.

All of this breaking in public, fairly late into Friday evening, is astonishing. Elizabeth Drew: "The news is stunning and makes little sense. On what authority could Ervin and Baker agree to such an arrangement? What on earth is Stennis doing in the picture?"

And a wonderful picture of a time long past, from Drew: "The radio is kept on, as if war had broken out." We're still years away from CNN, and decades before twitter.

That's where things end on Friday, October 19.


  1. Jonathan, I've probably missed this along the way, but what are your plans for collecting these posts in a single experience? I think many of us would like to read it like a book!

    Tom in Tempe

  2. You can do that just by clicking on the 'Watergate' tag:

    This post isn't tagged like that, as it happens, so it gets missed out... but they are normally.


    1. Fixed! Thanks.

      And thanks for the kind words. I did a post with links a while back; I really should find it and keep it on the home page...although as everyone can see, I'm pretty lazy about updating the home page.


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