October 20th in the Watergate Scandal


This piece is from my book Watergate Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones, available in print or ebook form.

Saturday Night’s Alright (for Firing)

The Watergate burglary itself took place on June 20, 1972, but following Richard Nixon’s overwhelming re-election in November of that year, it looked as if the worst of the scandal had been contained. As long as the burglary could be put down to overzealous underlings at the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP, but often abbreviated CREEP) and kept away from the White House itself, all was in order.

There were loose ends. One of the burglars had checks from E. Howard Hunt, a member of the White House “plumbers” who was connected to Special Counsel to the President Charles Colson, known as Nixon’s hatchet man. As part of the cover up, White House Counsel John Dean went to acting FBI director L. Patrick Gray to keep the situation under control. As Dean later wrote, “[We] could count on Pat Gray to keep the Hunt material from becoming public, and he did not disappoint us.”

Gray went so far as to burn what were billed as “national security documents [that] should never see the light of day” from Hunt’s personal safe at the request of Dean and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs John Ehrlichman. These documents weren’t officially about Watergate, Gray later said. “The first set of papers in there were false top-secret cables indicating that the Kennedy administration had much to do with the assassination of the Vietnamese president (Diem). The second set of papers in there were letters purportedly written by Senator Kennedy involving some of his peccadilloes, if you will.”

Unfortunately, Gray wasn’t the only person who knew about the Hunt material. His deputy, FBI Associate Director W. Mark Felt, who actually ran the FBI’s day-to-day operations, was also “Deep Throat,” the confidential informant providing Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein with information. As the material began to leak, Gray became shaky.

In February 1973, Nixon nominated Gray to be permanent director of the FBI, handing the Senate its first opportunity to interrogate a high-ranking Administration official about Watergate. Gray went into full self-defense mode. He volunteered that he’d provided investigation files to John Dean, saying FBI lawyers had told him it was legal, confirmed the dirty tricks activities of CREEP — and worst of all, testified that Dean himself had “probably lied” to the FBI. Enraged by the betrayal, Ehrlichman told Dean that Gray should “twist slowly, slowly in the wind.” (Ehrlichman was evidently a fan of Huxley’s Brave New World.) Gray withdrew his nomination, and after he learned that Dean had rolled over, Gray resigned from the FBI altogether. Although he was later indicted, he was never convicted.

In March 1973, Watergate burglar and CREEP security specialist James McCord wrote Watergate Judge John Sirica that his testimony was perjured under pressure. One month after that, seeing the handwriting on the wall, John Dean rolled over and began cooperating with Federal prosecutors. Desperate to distance himself from the scandal, Nixon responded by firing Ehrlichman, White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst. (Kleindienst had taken over from John Mitchell when Mitchell was tasked with leading the re-election effort. His involvement with the scandal was peripheral, and he ended up with a misdemeanor conviction for perjury and paid a $100 fine.)

With the Justice Department compromised, Nixon had little choice but to allow the appointment of a nominally independent special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. After the revelation of the White House tapes and Nixon’s refusal to release them, Cox pursued a subpoena to get the tapes for his investigation. When Cox refused a Nixon compromise that would give him transcripts but no access to the actual recordings, Nixon had had enough.

On Saturday evening, October 20, 1973, Nixon called Attorney General Elliot Richardson, Kleindienst’s successor, and ordered him to fire Cox. Richardson, citing his promise to the Congressional oversight committee not to interfere with the Special Prosecutor, refused. When Nixon continued to press him, he resigned. Nixon then called the Deputy Attorney General, William Ruckelshaus, who had made the same pledge, and ordered him to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus also resigned.

The third in command of the Justice Department was Solicitor General Robert Bork (later a notorious failed Supreme Court nominee), who had not been part of the process and who had therefore not made the same pledge. Although Bork claimed to believe that Nixon had the right to fire Cox, he says he also considered resigning so he wouldn’t be “perceived as a man who did the President’s bidding to save my job.” Elliot Richardson says he persuaded Bork not to resign, on the grounds that the Justice Department needed some continuity of leadership.

Nixon had Bork brought to the White House by limousine, swore him in as Acting Attorney General, and had Bork write the letter on the spot firing Cox.

This incident became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” and it was a major tipping point in the scandal. Congress was infuriated, the public outraged. After the Massacre, a plurality of Americans for the first time supported impeachment: 44% for, 43% against, 13% undecided. Several resolutions of impeachment were introduced in the House. Nixon was forced to allow Bork to appoint a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski. There was some concern Jaworski, as the President’s approved choice, would limit the investigation to the burglary alone, but as it turned out, Jaworski also looked at the broader implications of the growing scandal.

In November 1973, a Federal district judge ruled that Cox’s firing was illegal under the regulation establishing the special prosecutors office, which required a finding of “extraordinary impropriety.” However, the situation had moved far too quickly to allow Cox to resume his position. The battle of the tapes would continue well into the following year.