Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Calling Elliot Richardson

If you are of a certain age, the Saturday Night Massacre is imprinted indelibly in your memory, for on that night it seemed our 200-year-old experiment in democracy was about to disintegrate.

On Saturday, October 20, 1973, President Richard Nixon summoned the Attorney General of the United States and ordered him to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Cox had been investigating the Watergate scandal, in particular White House involvement in covering up the break-in of Democratic headquarters. Once investigators learned that a taping system in the White House had recorded all of Nixon’s conversations, Cox had subpoenaed the tapes and other presidential papers, but Nixon refused to surrender them, offering only summaries of the tapes, not transcripts or the tapes themselves.

Rather than fire Cox, Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned. Nixon then summoned the Deputy Attorney General, William Ruckelshaus, who also resigned. It was Solicitor General Robert Bork, elevated to acting Attorney General, who finally did the President’s bidding. In addition to firing Cox, Nixon—through Bork—ordered the elimination of the Office of Special Prosecutor. The President, it seemed, was above the law.

This night of constitutional carnage was thereafter known as the Saturday Night Massacre. No doubt Nixon thought he had prevailed, but the incident marked the beginning of the end of his presidency. Why did Richardson and Ruckelshaus take this stand against the President? Principle. “At stake, in the final analysis, is the very integrity of the governmental processes I came to the Department of Justice to help restore,” Richardson noted. “I have been compelled to conclude that I could better serve my country by resigning my public office than by continuing in it.”

Putting the welfare of the country ahead of loyalty to the President sounds quaint in 2007. At his confirmation hearing, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales claimed to recognize that he would “no longer represent the White House; I will represent the United States of America and its people.” In light of recent revelations, however, his words ring hollow. Does anyone doubt what Gonzales would have done on October 20, 1973, had he been in office?

Our country faced a constitutional crisis then, and it faces one now. Who will restore integrity to our Justice Department? Who will defend our constitution from an overreaching president and his enabling attorney general?

Elliot Richardson, where are you?


texas toad said...

I remember it well. For those who might not, here is a link:

Max Edison said...

I believe he is dead.