A Watergate Interlude ► The Saturday Night Massacre
Watergate complex

DATELINE October 20, 1973 – President Richard Nixon fires Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelhaus resign rather than have to carry out the job. The press immediately dubbed this The Saturday Night Massacre.

Archibald Cox

Cox and Nixon seemed destined to come to loggerheads. Archibald Cox had been the U.S. Solicitor General under President Kennedy, who was a sworn enemy of Nixon, long before he defeated him in the 1960 presidential election. After serving in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations Cox returned to private life and Harvard Law School in 1965, where he had been before serving in government. When, in May of 1973 the government was looking for someone squeaky clean to look into the growing Watergate Scandal, Cox was tapped for the job. However, it wasn’t as smooth as that makes it sound.

Richard Kleindienst had been Nixon’s Attorney General, but resigned on April 30, 1973, the same day that John W. Dean was fired and H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman were allowed to quit. When Elliot Richardson was nominated to become the new Attorney General the Senate made Cox’s appointment a condition before confirming Richardson.

Special Prosecutor Cox learned of the extensive White House taping system at the same time the rest of ‘Merka did, at the Watergate Hearings. He knew the tapes might settle some of the questions of who knew what when. That’s when a 4 way power struggle began; with Nixon on one side, and the Senate Watergate Committee, Judge John Sirica — who had issued a Grand Jury subpoena for the tapes — and Cox on the other. All wanted the White House tapes and President Nixon stalled for months rather than turn them over.

President Nixon posing with the rejected transcripts

At first Nixon claimed Executive Privilege. Finally Judge Sirica ordered Nixon to turn over the tapes. Nixon stalled again by offering a compromise. He’s have Democratic Senator John Stennis listen to the tapes and prepare a summary of the tapes, based on transcripts prepared by the White House. This was rejected by Special Prosecutor Cox on October 19, who held a press conference the following day to outline his reasoning.

That evening Richard Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson resigned rather than do so. That left it to Deputy Attorney General Ruckelshaus to carry out Nixon’s order. Ruckelshaus resigned as well. During the Watergate scandal there were not many acts of integrity from the Nixon administration. That is why these stood out in sharp contrast.

In the end it was left to Solicitor General Robert Bork, who was now acting head of the Justice Department, to fire Archibald Cox. And the shit hit the fan. There was far more at stake than just the tapes and Nixon’s presidency. As the Washington Post of the following day noted:

The action raised new questions as to whether Congress would proceed to confirm House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford of Michigan to be Vice President or leave Speaker of the House Carl Albert (D-Okla.) next in line of succession to the highest office in the land.

It was all downhill for Nixon from here on in. As the WikiWackyWoo reports:

On Nov. 14, 1973, Federal District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell ruled that the dismissal of Mr. Cox was illegal, in the absence of a prior finding of extraordinary impropriety as specified in the regulation establishing the special prosecutor’s office.

Congress was infuriated by the act [of the Saturday Night Massacre], which was seen as a gross abuse of presidential power. The public sent in an unusually large number of telegrams to both the White House and Congress. And following the Saturday Night Massacre, as opposed to August of the same year, an Oliver Quayle poll for NBC News showed that a plurality of American citizens now supported impeachment, with 44% in favor, 43% opposed, and 13% undecided, although with a sampling error of 2 to 3 percent. In the days that followed, numerous resolutions of impeachment against the president were introduced in Congress.

Nixon was forced to allow Robert Bork to appoint a new Special Prosecutor, Leon Jaworski. If the White House thought Jaworski would be more amenable to pressure, it was sorely mistaken. Jaworski continued to press for the release of the tapes, as well as the expansion of the investigation beyond the original Watergate burglaries.  Later Nixon released transcripts of the tapes, which satisfied no one and made “expletive deleted” a national punchline. It still took another 10 months until Nixon finally resigned to avoid impeachment and possible conviction.

Some of my books on President Nixon and
Watergate. Behind those books are more books.

Richard Nixon has long been a fascination of mine. For further reading try my other posts on Watergate:

Aunty Em Ericann’s Bun Fight With James Rosen of Fox “News”

Unpacking The Aunty Em Ericann Blog ► Part New 

Watergate ► The Beginning of the End

Watergate ► The End of the End 

Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used To Be ► Happy Birthday Martha Mitchell

Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used To Be ► Vice Presidents We Have Known

About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.