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home : news : odds and ends free May 24, 2016

10/12/2013 11:35:00 AM
40th Anniversary of Saturday Night Massacre
Landmark of Watergate
Tom Emery
Breeze-Courier guest writer

The 1972 Watergate break-in sparked a two-year string of events. Few were as dramatic as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”

Sunday, Oct. 20, one week from today, marks the fortieth anniversary of the “massacre,” in which President Nixon demanded the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox on Saturday evening, Oct. 20, 1973. The demand came in response to Cox’s subpoena of Nixon’s taped Oval Office conversations.

Attorney General Elliott Richardson refused to comply with Nixon’s order that Saturday evening, and resigned in protest.  Nixon then ordered the deputy attorney general, William Ruckelshaus, to carry out the firing, but he also refused and resigned.

Finally, Robert Bork, who was third in line at the Justice Department as solicitor general, adhered to Nixon’s demand, and Cox was dismissed. Public sentiment turned and calls for Nixon’s impeachment intensified from the episode, which the press dubbed “The Saturday Night Massacre.”  

“It was the culmination of all the drama that had built up from the scandal,” said Duquesne University law dean Ken Gormley, an acclaimed Cox biographer. “It was evident that there would be a showdown, and it was clear that Nixon was going to test the outer boundaries of the law to defy Cox.”

Questions surrounding the botched Watergate burgulary of June 17, 1972 led to a Senate investigation the next March, and a series of resignations followed on April 30, including top Nixon aides H.R. Haldeman and John Erlichman and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst. Richardson, who had been appointed Secretary of Defense in January 1973, replaced Kleindienst.

Senate hearings began on May 17 and two days later, respected Harvard law professor Archibald Cox was appointed as special prosecutor. Cox’s position was defined as “career reserved,” under the authority of the Attorney General and protected from dismissal unless “for cause.” Named solicitor general in the Kennedy administration, Cox came from a long line of distinguished public servants and was a great-grandson of William Evarts, who, ironically, defended President Andrew Johnson during the first impeachment of a chief executive in 1868.      

“Cox was careful, conscious, and principled, and was an independent thinker, like Evarts was,” said Gormley. “His goal was not to bring down Nixon, or advance himself. He wanted to apply the rule of law.”

On July 16, former Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield stunned the nation with Senate testimony that Nixon had installed a recording system in the Oval Office. Cox and the Senate Committee requested the tapes, only to be rebuffed by Nixon, who claimed executive privilege.

Cox and the committee then subpoenaed the tapes.  Nixon ordered the subpoena dropped, but Cox refused. The matter was turned over to the Supreme Court.

Nixon offered a compromise on Friday, Oct. 19, 1973 by which Sen. John Stennis (D-Miss.) would independently review the many hours of tapes and present a finding to Cox’s office. The choice of Stennis, an elderly man with a hearing problem who was recovering from a January shooting, raised eyebrows. Cox refused this “Stennis Compromise” and held a press conference the next afternoon to address his position.

“There just happened to be fewer football games on television than normal that day, and more people watched the press conference,” said Gormley. “They saw Cox’s forceful conviction and integrity on display, and people connected with that.”

Shortly after the press conference, Richardson received a call from Nixon chief of staff Alexander Haig, relaying the President’s order that Cox be fired. Richardson met with Nixon, refused, and offered his resignation. The order then passed to Ruckelshaus, who also refused to dismiss Cox and resigned.

Finally, Bork acted on Nixon’s demand. FBI agents were then ordered to seal the offices of Richardson, Ruckelshaus, and Cox.  The White House announced the events at 8:30 that evening as the nation looked on in amazement. NBC anchor John Chancellor grimly reported “what may be the most serious Constitutional crisis” in American history. The press later nicknamed the affair “The Saturday Night Massacre,” and the public erupted over the spectacle.

Congress introduced several resolutions for Nixon’s impeachment, and Cox became a sympathetic figure. Some 450,000 mailgrams and telegrams were received at the Capitol and White House in the coming days, many supporting Cox’s integrity and demanding the President’s impeachment.

“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to in their fifties, sixties, and seventies who can tell you where they were, and what they were doing, when they heard the news of the massacre,” remarked Gormley.

Nixon never recovered from the massacre and resigned on Aug. 9, 1974 in the face of certain impeachment. “After Cox was fired, the outcome was somewhat inevitable,” said Gormley. “The Supreme Court then demanded that Nixon turn over the tapes, which contained damning information that showed he was involved in the Watergate cover-up. There was no room for political maneuvering, and it was increasingly clear that Nixon was going out either by impeachment or resignation.”

By comparison, one contemporary declared that Cox “became a permanent American hero.” He eventually returned to Harvard and continued his distinguished career, and died in 2004.

“Cox was an incredible public servant, and uniquely suited for that crisis,” concluded Gormely. “He spent his whole life admiring the American system of laws, and his role in Watergate was not about his own career. Cox was standing up for our institution of government.”

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He  may be reached at 217-710-8392 or

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