On Saturday night, 20 October 1973, President Richard M. Nixon “discharged” Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, an event now known as the Saturday Night Massacre. Nixon “also abolished the office of the special prosecutor.”
Nixon had demanded that first attorney general Elliot Richardson and then deputy attorney General William Ruckelshaus fire Cox. Both men refused. Instead, they resigned. In succession.
Solicitor General Robert Bork, now the acting attorney general (line of succession), obeyed Nixon’s directive. (Fourteen years later, almost to the day, the Senate would overwhelmingly reject Bork’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, 23 October 1987.)
What brought Nixon down, however, was not his actions of 20 October 1973. That temper tantrum did trigger a torrent of outrage, however.
“Three million messages descended on Congress, the greatest outpouring of its kind that had ever taken place,” according to former Attorney General Richardson in December 1973. According to History.com, “21 members of Congress introduced resolutions calling for Nixon’s impeachment.”
I was a freshman in college and remember much of that event as though it were, if not yesterday, perhaps last month.
Forty nine years ago! Four years ago, NPR ran a 45 year retrospective noting that most of the American population had not been alive in 1972, the year of the Watergate break-in.
What was Watergate?
Local police arrested five men in June 1972 after they broke into Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate hotel and office. That break-in set off a chain of investigations which would reveal “a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of the Nixon reelection effort.”
Although Nixon was re-elected by a landslide in November 1972, the break-in story would not die.
Investigators discovered a related burglary from September 1971. A jury convicted two former Nixon re-elections committee officials (G. Gordon Liddy and James W. McCord Jr.) of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping in January 1973. Five other co-conspirators had pleaded guilt.
In May 1973, the U.S. Senate began televised hearings on the break-in. The investigation would end the presidency of Richard M. Nixon the following summer, 09 August 1974.
For 47 days and nights, PBS covered the hearings from gavel-to-gavel. In that “pre-DVR era,” PBS also re-ran the hearings in prime time.
Also in May, attorney general Richardson had appointed Cox as a special prosecutor (independent counsel) to investigate the Watergate break-in on behalf of the Department of Justice.
Richardson had promised Congress during his confirmation hearings that “Cox would have unimpeded authority to subpoena potential evidence from any source, including the President himself.”
Why did Nixon want to fire Cox?
On 16 February 1971, a secret, voice-activated recording system began operating in the Oval Office of the White House. (Its reach would later be expanded.) Former White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman recounted the history of that system for the National Archives.
Cox wanted to listen to those tapes to see what Nixon knew about Watergate and the coverup. Nixon did not want to release the tapes to anyone.
There was, according to Haldeman, a possibly incriminating recording on 21 March 1973. That day, John Dean “had described at length the problems that Watergate had created for the presidency.”
The meeting took place in Mr. Nixon’s Executive Office Building suite on June 20, 1972, just three days after discovery of the break-in and bugging at Democratic National Committee headquarters here. According to former Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox’s subpoena, “there is every reason to infer that the meeting included discussion of the Watergate incident.”
Dismayed at the report of another missing coversation, Judge Sirica gave the President until Monday to submit all the extant recordings that Cox subpoenaed for safekeeping at the U.S. courthouse here.
If Mr. Nixon is unwilling to do that voluntarily, Sirica said, he would ask Watergate prosecutors to issue a fresh subpoena for the full reels of tape containing the disputed conversations.
On 24 July 1974, the US Supreme Court rejected Nixon’s claim of executive privilege with regards to the tapes.
[A] unanimous Court (with Justice Rehnquist not taking part due to a prior role in the Nixon administration) ruled against the President. Chief Justice Warren Burger said that the President didn’t have an absolute, unqualified privilege to withhold information.
“We conclude that when the ground for asserting privilege as to subpoenaed materials sought for use in a criminal trial is based only on the generalized interest in confidentiality, it cannot prevail over the fundamental demands of due process of law in the fair administration of criminal justice. The generalized assertion of privilege must yield to the demonstrated, specific need for evidence in a pending criminal trial,” Burger said.
Sixteen days later, Nixon resigned.
Addendum (related to 2022)
In his December 1973 speech, Haldeman asserted that the American public had ‘recoiled’ from the corruption revealed by the Saturday Night Massacre. That behavior was a “reassuring sign that our instinct of value preservation is still alert and sensitive.” He continued:
“We can no longer tolerate the embezzlement of public trust.”
Oh, that this statement were true.