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The Saturday Night Massacre

“When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”—Richard Nixon, 1977

President Nixon in the famous Nixon/Frost interview, 1977
On June 17, 1972, a group of men were caught breaking into Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC.  This was the beginning of the famous Watergate scandal, when President Richard Nixon hired agents to conduct espionage on the Democratic Party, hoping to give himself an extra advantage in the presidential election that year.  When the election took place that November, Nixon won in a landslide, carrying 49 states.  Only Washington, DC and Massachusetts voted for his Democratic rival, Senator George McGovern.  Needless to say, Nixon was probably being a little too cautious where his reëlection was concerned.

Word got out, and the people and Congress started to call for an investigation.  Facing growing pressure, President Nixon asked Attorney General Elliot Richardson to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate.  Though the president appoints a special prosecutor, the point is to find someone whose loyalties aren’t to the president or to anyone else.  This is important, because it’s reasonable to assume that the White House can’t be expected to conduct an impartial investigation into itself.

The man appointed to be the special prosecutor was prominent lawyer Archibald Cox.  He got the job on May 18, 1973, well after Nixon began his second term.  Cox got right to work.  It was well known that kept tapes of conversations held in the Oval Office.  Cox asked Nixon for the tapes so he could judge for himself what happened, but Nixon refused.  By July 18, Cox felt he had to issue a subpoena through the District Court of Washington, DC, to force the White House to deliver the tapes to him.  Nixon responded in a letter the next week stating that he felt it would be inappropriate for him to comply with the request, due to the separation of powers between the executive branch and the judicial branch.

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Cox and Nixon

Cox did not give up.  He took his case to the Supreme Court, which agreed that the White House should send him the tapes.  The White House again refused to comply, and appealed the decision.  By September 1973, it was looking pretty bad.  Sentiment was starting to shift toward Cox and the Watergate investigation, and the White House’s stonewalling wasn’t helping.

Nixon decided he had to give the public something.  On October 19, 1973, he proposed what came to be known as the Stennis Compromise.  Nixon suggested that the tapes be reviewed by Senator John C. Stennis of Mississippi, so that he could summarize them and provide Cox with what he found.  Worth noting is that Senator Stennis was famously hard of hearing, which might mean he’s not the best candidate to transcribe and annotate utterances.

Archibald Cox did not take the bait.  Instead he promptly refused the compromise.  Nixon couldn’t have expected Cox to react in any other way, but Nixon’s response to Cox’s refusal surprised everyone.  Upon Cox’s refusal, Nixon asked Attorney General Richardson to fire Cox.  Richardson resigned in protest.  Then Nixon turned to Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus and ordered him to do it.  Ruckelshaus refused, too, and also resigned in protest.  Then Richard Nixon turned to Deputy Attorney General Robert Bork and asked him to fire Cox, and Nixon found his man.  In the evening of Saturday, October 20, 1973, three men were out of work, and the Saturday Night Massacre was complete.

The New York Times’ front page on the morning after the Saturday Night Massacre.

Following the Massacre, Nixon’s fortunes suddenly shifted.  Public opinion turned sharply against him, and Nixon’s esteem only continued to decline.  Calls to impeach the president increased.  The public saw Nixon’s move against Cox as inappropriate.  Weeks later, a federal court found Cox’s dismissal illegal.  Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, were furious with Nixon.

A special prosecutor is not a permanent position, like the Director of the FBI.  They only have their job for as long as the case they’re on is still in the courts.  Still, obstruction is obstruction.  On July 27, 1974, the House Judiciary Committee charged Nixon with obstruction of justice—an impeachable offense.  Two more articles of impeachment came soon after, and there was, by this point, a bipartisan taste for it.  President NIxon could see the writing on the wall.  He knew impeachment was coming, and saw that it was time to get out of the way.  On August 8, 1974, he announced on national television that he would resign the presidency at noon the next day.  He followed through on that promise, and on August 9, 1974, Vice President Gerald Ford became the 38th President of the United States.

Nixon could have been charged for obstruction of justice after he resigned, but President Ford decided that, for the good of the country that had just gone through such an ordeal, he would pardon him.  The country, on the other hand, didn’t seem to appreciate Ford’s kindness to his former boss, and voted Ford out in the 1976 election.
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Ford’s pardon of Nixon was not well received by everyone.

After Nixon’s death, his personal papers revealed that he’d promised Bork the next Supreme Court nomination if he carried out his order to fire Cox.  Nixon never got the chance to appoint another Supreme Court justice.  Gerald Ford did, however, and he passed over Bork for John Paul Stevens.  President Ronald Reagan would later nominate Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1986, but the Senate refused to approve him.  Bork’s nomination was charged with partisan rancor, possibly due in part to his connection to the Watergate scandal, but more due to his fierce opposition to abortion rights.  After this nomination failed, sometimes a fiercely fought partisan opposition to a nominee is referred to as “Borking”.


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