Just What Was ‘the Saturday Night Massacre’?

by on November 8, 2018 · 0 comments

in History

Almost daily and nightly we hear comparisons of the abuse of power by president Trump to those by former president Richard Nixon back in the mid-1970s. And at times like these – immediately after Trump’s firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his appointment of a Trump loyalist and critic of the Mueller investigation to now be the acting-attorney general – we hear comparisons to the “Saturday Night Massacre” which led eventually to Nixon’s resignation

Okay, then, just what was the “Saturday Night Massacre”?

It was Saturday, October 20, 1973, and the nation was deep in the grip of the Watergate scandal and the investigation into Nixon’s abuses of power. An independent special prosecutor by the name of Archibald Cox had been appointed five months earlier by then Attorney General Elliot Richardson to investigate the White House-directed break-in of the Democratic National Committee’s offices. Their offices were at the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C., and this was back in mid-June of 1972.

During his Senate confirmation hearings Attorney General Richardson had pledged not to dismiss the Watergate special prosecutor, unless for cause.

We’ve all now heard about Nixon’s tapes, recorded conversations from the Oval Office when he was in office. Back in the Fall of ’73, nobody really knew what was on them – outside Nixon’s handful of close men. So, Cox had subpoenaed them asking for copies.

Nixon refused. Initially. Then on Friday, October 19th, he offered a compromise that was so ridiculous that Special Prosecutor Cox rejected it that evening. (Nixon had offered that copies of the tapes be given to a notoriously racist, right-wing senator – John C. Stennis of Mississippi – who was known widely to be hard-of-hearing to review and summarize the tapes for Cox instead of the special prosecutor’s office.)

The next day – Saturday – Nixon was brimming with anger at Cox’s rejection of his compromise; he was really fired up. He called Elliot Richardson – the attorney general – and ordered him to fire Cox. Richardson refused. And in protest, Richardson resigned immediately.

Nixon then called the next in line at the Department of Justice, Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, and ordered him to fire Cox. No, Ruckelshaus responded and he too resigned immediately in protest.

Turning to the third-most-senior official at the DOJ, Nixon then ordered Solicitor General Robert Bork to fire Cox. By this time, it was night – and reported later to have considered resigning – Bork was driven by limousine to the White House, sworn in as acting attorney general, and wrote the letter (Twitter wouldn’t be around for another 40 years or so) and so carrying out the president’s order, fired Cox, the Special Prosecutor appointed to investigate the president.

Richardson and Ruckelshaus had resigned – and Cox fired by that night. It was immediately dubbed the “Saturday Night Massacre” and became part of the legacy of the entire Watergate affair – and importantly, part of the attempted cover-up of Nixon’s crimes.

When the other day, Jeff Sessions was fired, his staff and subordinates held a downcast farewell and send-off. In contrast, when Cox was fired on October 21, 1973, his staff held an emotional  news briefing and read the following statement from him,

“Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.”

After Nixon’s firings and resignations, a firestorm erupted immediately. Congress was outraged across the board (unlike today) with a consensus that Nixon was abusing presidential power. Many Americans across the land were also infuriated and to demonstrate that, flooded the White House and Congress with telegrams (before email). A few days after the firing and resignations, a poll was taken that showed for the first time, a plurality of U.S. citizens supporting Nixon’s impeachment ( 44% in favor, 43% opposed, and 13% undecided). Soon, numerous resolutions of impeachment were introduced in the House.

Eleven days after the Saturday Night Massacre, a new special counsel was appointed by Bork and he wisely chose Leon Jaworski, who fortunately for the rest of us, continued Cox’s investigation into the broader corruption involving the White House. Two weeks later, a court ruled that the Cox’s dismissal had been illegal.

Nixon being Nixon (sound familiar?), he refused to release the tapes. But he did agree to turn over transcripts of many.

Finally, it took a ruling from the Supreme Court ordering him to turn them over. As pressure mounted on Nixon over the Watergate scandal and its cover-up, the House Judiciary Committee approved its first article of impeachment on July 27, 1974, charging Nixon with obstruction of justice; two more articles of impeachment soon followed. It had been nine months since the Saturday Night Massacre.

Facing near certain impeachment and conviction, Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. It had been over 2 years since the Watergate break-in and 10 months since the Saturday Night Massacre.

[I lived through it but had to refer to Wikipedia for details.]



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