Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Saturday Night Massacre

Richard M. Nixon

In all the excitement over Fitzgerald and Rove and Cheney et al, I clean missed it, but last Thursday was the 32nd anniversary of the Saturday Night Massacre.

For any who don't recall, that was the colorful term used in the press (a pissy, vinegary press, tussling like jackals over the Washington Post's bone) at the time for this sequence of events on October 20, 1973:

  • Richard Nixon orders his Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, to fire Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor.

  • Richardson refuses, and tenders his resignation, which Nixon accepts.

  • Nixon orders Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to do the job on Cox.

  • Ruckelshaus also refuses, and joins Richardson in early retirement, though not voluntarily.

  • Nixon hands the job to Solicitor General Robert Bork, who faithfully executes Cox.

  • Nixon issues an order abolishing the office of special prosecutor

Nixon's raw exercise of Presidential power ultimately failed to achieve its goal, which was to suppress the "White House tapes", subpoenaed by Cox. When you hear Watergate referred to as a "constitutional crisis", they're talking about the legal wrangling over those tapes, and the Saturday Night Massacre was the flash point of that wrangle.

In retrospect, it's hard to imagine how Nixon could have thought he could get away with such a gambit, but less than a year before, he had been reelected by 60.7% of the popular vote, which represented almost 57% of everyone even eligible to vote in that election. It was one of the biggest landslides in history. The Vietnam war was over, and all the various Yippies, Weathermen, Panthers (and so forth) of the sixties had pretty much faded to irrelevance. J. Edgar Hoover was dead, but L. Patrick Gray's FBI was squarely in his executive pocket (modulo Mark Felt). The CIA went without saying. You can almost understand his hubris.

Nixon's power play failed, and his man Bork finally paid a price in '87 when Reagan, suffering his own mild case of hubris, nominated him for the Supreme Court. That was the poetic end of that, for the nonce.

Later, we let the lovable, failing old putz Reagan off the hook for Iran-Contra, and as coda to that, we let Poppy Bush pardon everyone who could have implicated him in the crimes against our nation. In retrospect, it's hard to imagine how George H.W. could have thought he could get away with such a gambit, and it's even harder to figure out how he did. Let it go. It's in the past - let it go.

George W. Bush's hubris has always been a little harder to fathom, because he has pushed it so far beyond the popular zeitgeist. He's been so bold that some have speculated that he must have secret locks on the major media, and on the mechanics of the franchise, but set that aside for now. Set it aside!

Now we're on tenterhooks, waiting for the latest, most fashionable special prosecutor to issue indictments. Will the Boy King precipitate yet another Republican Constitutional Crisis?

Stay tuned.

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