Sunday, October 20, 2013

October 20, 1973

The Saturday Night Massacre

Events happened rapidly, to say the least.

Sam Ervin, after talking to committee counsel Sam Dash and realizing that the agreement Nixon had announced was not what he had agreed to, "exploded" (in Emery's words; as usual, the basic source here is Fred Emery, Watergate). But that's not all; Senator Stennis wasn't on board for what Nixon had announced, either. Nixon's attempt to railroad them had backfired already.

Nixon, in the newspapers that morning, argued that the crisis in the Middle East meant that Watergate had to be put aside; Henry Kissinger, that morning, flew to Moscow to negotiate the tense situation, and Nixon spoke about "those in the international community who may be tempted by our Watergate-related difficulties at home to misread America's unity and resolve."

Attorney General Elliot Richardson begins the day by writing to Nixon, saying that he would not interfere with the special prosecutor, nor would he fire him. Al Haig tells him that the president is moving ahead.

Archibald Cox holds a press conference, carried live on TV, at 1PM. Elizabeth Drew describes a "folksy, tentative, Jimmy Stewart-like character." Cox made the point, again, that Nixon was refusing to comply with the court's order, and said he would return to court to force compliance. He also emphasized that the Attorney General, and not the president, was his direct superior and therefore the only one who could relieve him of his duties.

This president now resolved to fire the special prosecutor, with his outright defiance of the presidential order as his reason. White House lawyer Leonard Garment calls Richardson as soon as Cox is off TV and asks: given the international situation, would Richardson be willing to fire Cox now, and then resign over it later. Richardson says no. Garment tells Nixon, who replies: "I'm not surprised that that pious bastard cares more for his ass than his country."

Now Haig calls Richardson. This time it's a direct order: Fire Archibald Cox.

Richardson asks to meet with Nixon.

They meet in the Oval Office at 4:30 (for Drew, "the afternoon is one of rumors and speculation.")

Nixon: "I'm sorry that you insist on putting your personal commitments ahead of the public interest."

Richardson: "I can only say that I believe my resignation is in the public interest."

As the evening news (and again, remember that there's no CNN, no internet; there is radio for normal breaking news, but mostly if it's not on the evening news then there's nothing until the next morning's papers) goes on in the evening, still nothing is known. The NBC news has a clip from Cox, and explains the situation, but they don't yet know what's happening.

Richardson leaves the White House. He has resigned.

Before he went to the meeting, the top three at the Justice Department had discussed their plans, and what they agreed to now unfolds.

Al Haig calls the second in command at Justice, Deputy Attorney General Bill Ruckelshaus, who asks: if the situation in the Middle East is so critical, why not wait on Cox?

Haig: "Your commander in chief has given you an order. You have no alternative."

Ruckelshaus: "Except to resign"

The White House doesn't give him the choice; Nixon fires him. Nixon says to Haig: "We don't owe him anything but a good kick in the ass. Ruckelshaus has to be fired. I don't want him to go back to Indiana and run for Senate."

Now, it's to the third man at Justice -- and the last in the regular order of succession -- Solicitor General Robert Bork. He is summoned to the White House. In their earlier meeting, Bork had told Richardson and Ruckelshaus that unlike them, he (having been confirmed before any of this came up) had made no similar commitments, and therefore he would, if ordered to, fire Cox; they then urged him to stay on rather than resigning after that action because someone did have to keep Justice functioning.

The letter is waiting at the White House for Bork to sign. Bork signs the letter, firing Cox.

Cox prepares a statement: "Whether we shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is for Congress and ultimately the American people."

Ron Zeigler breaks the news from the White House at 8:25: that Richardson has resigned, Ruckelshaus fired, Cox fired by Bork; the "office of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force has been abolished." Al Haig, meanwhile, sends FBI agents to seal the special prosecutor's offices, and for good measure the offices of Richardson and Ruckelshaus.

The reaction is immediate. John Chancellor begins his live report: "Good evening. The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious constitutional crisis in its history." Republican Senator Edward Brooke reacted as many would in the next few days: "This act on the part of the President, under the circumstances, is sufficient evidence which the House of Representatives should consider to begin impeachment proceedings."

Elizabeth Drew captures the feel of it:


The news is coming too fast. Faster and harder than anyone expected. It is almost impossible to absorb. Summary findings are not our style. Something about Saturday night -- a private time, the dark. Too much disarrangement at once. The speed of events has become part of their substance. One journalist says that it's like being in a banana republic. Another, ordinarily an outspoken defender of the Administration, says it's like downtown Santiago. Their statements bespeak anxieties that are beyond matters of atmospherics. An enigmatic President has summarily fired three men -- men who had built some public trust. what seemed logical, and even inexorable, this afternoon has taken on unpredictable and disturbing proportions. There is no way of telling what the President was thinking. Did he consider the impact that these events would have? Could he know? Did he care? There is another question people have been asking. It's whether the President has acted in an irrational burst of temper. It is clear that the President will go to some lengths to assert his independence of the courts and of prosecution. Will he succeed in this? Is there to be any check on him -- or any President -- ever again? Do we have a system of laws?

Where are we? The United States had three Attorneys General today.  Carl Albert is still first in line of succession for the Presidency. Then James Eastland....


Fred Emery, covering the story for The Times of London, wrote after the weekend that "There was a whiff of Gestapo in the chill October air."


  1. I was in my first semester of college when this happened and was following the news very attentively; following all the news out of Washington actually as I had a low draft number.

    Later, when Bork got borked in his bid for the Supreme Court I assumed that his firing of Cox was a big reason, but I don't recall that reason being cited at the time.

    1. It wasn't the main reason Bork wasn't confirmed, but it also didn't help him any.

    2. I bet it was a big reason why Biden, Kennedy, et al spiked the nomination, even though they cited different reasons publicly.

  2. I remember that NBC special well, and John Chancellor's opening. I had highlighted the Woodward-Bernstein and other evidence of corruption against Nixon in my pieces for the Boston Phoenix during the 1972 campaign, and was not surprised that the chickens were coming home to roost--but this was something else. Yet as much as I knew Nixon was extremely dangerous, I took heart in the actions of Richardson and Cox and Ruckelshaus, and for that matter, Chancellor. Nixon wasn't getting away with it, and from that day I finally felt that at last he wouldn't.

  3. Interesting. Bork's version of this recently was that he had volunteered to follow Richardson and Ruckelshaus in resigning but that they told him to stay on and (by extension) fire Cox.

    Your report makes more sense.

  4. People certainly got excited that night...

    Officials forced to resign in midnight coups by the Gestapo tended not to still be in government 25 years later.

    And I think there was a bigger constitutional crisis in the country's history... that one where half the country adopted its own separate constitution.

  5. This dispatch helps clarify for me how this thing happened. I remember the event itself well, and I also remember the Mideast war, but those two were never connected in my mind, and I don't remember that connection being drawn (i.e. not memorably) in the Watergate news coverage. Yet here we see that they were closely connected in Nixon's mind. It sounds like he was thinking, Mr. Great Foreign Policy Deep Thinker that he was, that here was a moment when others in the political culture would agree with him that the big picture was geopolitics, compared to which merely making the Justice Department a political tool of the administration would seem like small beer. Probably, too, he was thinking that his view of Cox as a Kennedyite -- and therefore, by definition, one of the many who were always out to "get Nixon" -- was more widely shared than it was.

    Granting that the media were also among those out to get Nixon (he assumed), John Chancellor calling it a "constitutional crisis" must have come as a shock. Network anchors in those days had amazing power -- hard to remember today -- to decide for "the Nation" what it should care about, and then to deliver the word on this as if it had been handed down from Mt. Olympus. That said, within just six years Chancellor was cheerleading for the Reagan agenda (and Dan Rather was echoing Reagan's talking points), so that's not a role I particularly miss having them play. They did get Nixon, though! :-)

    1. ".....must STILL have come as a shock." I meant to say.


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