Saturday Night Massacre – The Watergate Odyssey – 1973 – Past Daily Reference Room
The infamous Saturday Night Massacre. At the height of the Watergate Scandal and the eventual toppling of the Nixon Presidency, the move to oust Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, which was met by resistance from The Attorney General and Assistant Attorney General served to illustrate just how guilty Richard Nixon was and how desperate he was to maintain an air of normalcy in the rapidly sinking White House.
As Wikipedia puts it:
U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson had appointed Cox in May, 1973, after promising the House Judiciary Committee that he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the events surrounding the break-in of the Democratic National Committee’s offices at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., on June 17, 1972. The appointment was created as a career reserved position in the Justice department, meaning it came under the authority of the attorney general who could only remove the special prosecutor “for cause”, e.g., gross improprieties or malfeasance in office. Richardson had, in his confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate, promised not to use his authority to dismiss the Watergate special prosecutor, unless for cause.
When Cox issued a subpoena to Nixon, asking for copies of taped conversations recorded in the Oval Office, the president refused to comply. On Friday, October 19, 1973, Nixon offered what was later known as the Stennis Compromise—asking the infamously hard-of-hearing Senator John C. Stennis of Mississippi to review and summarize the tapes for the special prosecutor’s office. Cox refused the compromise that same evening and it was believed that there would be a short rest in the legal maneuvering while government offices were closed for the weekend.
However, the following day (Saturday) Nixon ordered Attorney General Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused and resigned in protest. Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus also refused and resigned.
Nixon then ordered the Solicitor General of the United States, Robert Bork, as acting head of the Justice Department, to fire Cox. Both Richardson and Ruckelshaus had given personal assurances to Congressional oversight committees that they would not interfere, but Bork had not. Although Bork later claimed he believed Nixon’s order to be valid and appropriate, he still considered resigning to avoid being “perceived as a man who did the President’s bidding to save my job”. Nevertheless, having been brought to the White House by limousine and sworn in as acting attorney general, Bork wrote the letter firing Cox – and the Saturday Night Massacre was complete.
Here are those initial bulletins and a discussion between CBS News reporters over the events and their implications. Interesting to note how out of breath Neil Strawser is as he delivers the news of the firings. It was uncharted territory in 1973 and no one knew what lay ahead.
It bears an eerie resemblance to more recent events, no doubt.