Saturday, October 20, 2007

October 20, 1973:

The Saturday Night Massacre

On October 20, 1973 -- a Saturday -- there was turmoil in the executive branch of the federal government. The incident quickly became known as the Saturday Night Massacre, with President Nixon firing Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox (pictured), though it took him a while to find someone in the Justice Department who would carry out the order.

"In the most traumatic government upheaval of the Watergate crisis, President Nixon yesterday discharged Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and accepted the resignations of Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus," reported the Washington Post at the time.

"The President also abolished the office of the special prosecutor and turned over to the Justice Department the entire responsibility for further investigation and prosecution of suspects and defendants in Watergate and related cases.

"Shortly after the White House announcement, FBI agents sealed off the offices of Richardson and Ruckelshaus in the Justice Department and at Cox's headquarters in an office building on K Street NW.

"An FBI spokesman said the agents moved in 'at the request of the White House.'

"Agents told staff members in Cox's office they would be allowed to take out only personal papers. A Justice Department official said the FBI agents and building guards at Richardson's and Ruckelshaus' offices were there 'to be sure that nothing was taken out.'

"Richardson resigned when Mr. Nixon instructed him to fire Cox and Richardson refused. When the President then asked Ruckelshaus to dismiss Cox, he refused, White House spokesman Ronald L. Ziegler said, and he was fired. Ruckelshaus said he resigned.

"Finally, the President turned to Solicitor General Robert H. Bork, who by law becomes acting Attorney General when the Attorney General and deputy attorney general are absent, and he carried out the President's order to fire Cox."

This sudden move didn't do the Nixon presidency much good in the short or long run. As for Cox, he later became chairman of Common Cause, and died in 2004. President Ford named Richardson Secretary of Commerce in 1976, and thus he became the only person to hold four cabinet positions at one time or another -- HEW, Defense, Attorney General and Commerce. He died in 1999. Ruckelshaus, who is now 75, returned to his law practice, but was also interim administrator of the EPA under President Reagan for a short stint. Back in the early Nixon administration, he had been the first head of the EPA. Robert Bork may not have gotten a seat on the US Supreme Court, but he has become a
arguably a rarer honor, though not because of the Saturday Night Massacre. History will decide whether his eponym outlives this generation.

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