The death this past weekend of Archibald Cox, the special Watergate prosecutor fired in Pres. Richard Nixon’s infamous Saturday Night Massacre of October 1973, provides a timely reminder of how public officials can act in times of national crisis when official policy collides with their conscience.
When the Watergate scandal first began gaining steam in the spring of 1973, Nixon was forced to clean house and bring in a new attorney general, Eliot Richardson, a Bostonian with impeccable ethics who had previously served as secretary of health, education, and welfare and as secretary of defense who would in those days have been called a Rockefeller Republican. Sensing that he had to demonstrate some willingness to face examination on Watergate, Nixon empowered his new attorney general to bring in a special prosecutor if that became warranted.
Richardson soon reached out to Cox, his former Harvard Law School professor. Two months into Cox’s tenure, the world learned that Nixon had a secret tape-recording system that later turned out to provide the smoking gun that forced the only presidential resignation in U.S. history. Cox pursued the tapes in court, against the fierce opposition of Nixon’s lawyers. When the special prosecutor won an initial round in court, the president ordered him to desist, an order he refused.
In response, on a memorable Saturday night, the president demanded that his attorney general fire Cox. Richardson refused, and resigned himself. Nixon then ordered the deputy attorney general, William Ruckelshaus, to fire the special prosecutor. He too refused, resigning instead. Only Robert Bork, the solicitor general who would later become a highly controversial and unsuccessful Reagan Supreme Court nominee, would do Nixon’s dirty work.
Nixon won the battle but lost the war. He hung in for nine months more, but was not able to resist demands for release of the tapes that damned him.
Richardson and Ruckelshaus all acted to the short-term detriment of their political careers but in the lasting interests of their nation.
In recent weeks and months, a growing chorus of voices have demanded that Defense Sec. Donald Rumsfeld—and others in the Bush administration’s national security team—resign over the debacle in Iraq and the scandal at Abu Ghraib. Rumsfeld, of course, is not cut from the same cloth as any of the three honorable men who served Nixon more than a generation ago.
Others in the administration, however—most notably Sec. of State Colin Powell—have made clear their discomfort with the course of the Bush foreign policy. The trap for such people of conscience is always the conceit that they can do more to effect change from within than by leaving in protest. Given the collapse of Bush’s global credibility, however, leaders such as Powell might well consider whether they would do better to take a page out of history than continue to stand by a failed and obstinate policy.
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