On Oct. 20, 1973, four government officials were hunkered down in a small office on the fifth floor of the Justice Department. It was a Saturday afternoon, but they knew they were facing a political maelstrom — one still being invoked in Washington more than four decades later.
The previous summer, five members of a committee to reelect President Richard M. Nixon had been caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s offices at the Watergate Hotel. In May 1973, Archibald Cox was appointed as a special prosecutor to investigate the incident, and whether the president had been involved.
It didn’t take long for Nixon to clash with Cox: In July, the special prosecutor issued a subpoena for secret recordings the president had made of his Oval Office conversations. Nixon refused to turn over the tapes. Throughout the summer, the president invoked executive privilege until the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled, on Oct. 12, 1973, that Nixon had to comply.
By then, the chasm between the Nixon administration and the Justice Department had grown, and it was clear that the president wanted Cox gone.
The situation had become so tense, former deputy attorney general William Ruckelshaus recounted in an interview this week, that as he was leaving for Michigan to oversee the FBI’s background investigation of new vice-presidential nominee Gerald R. Ford, he told his boss, Attorney General Elliott Richardson: We’ll be in touch, because it looks like things are getting serious at the White House.
Richardson, he said, responded: It’s worse than you think.
On Oct. 15, 1973, a few days after the ruling by the Court of Appeals, Nixon tried to broker a deal with Richardson, who had been the one to appoint Cox. He would not turn over all of the tapes Cox had requested, but instead submit a full disclosure of what the tapes contained to a federal judge. Then John Stennis, a Democratic senator from Mississippi, would listen to the recordings and, in turn, verify Nixon’s statement about the tapes for the special prosecutor’s office.
Such an arrangement would ostensibly leave out any sensitive conversations that would threaten national security if released. Richardson agreed to the so-called Stennis Compromise, The Washington Post reported. Cox, however, rejected it.
In a statement about the Watergate tapes published in the New York Times on Oct. 19, 1973, Nixon cast blame on Cox for not accepting what he called “a reasonable proposal for compromise.” The president announced he would voluntarily make available a statement of the Watergate-related portions of the tapes “prepared and authenticated in the fashion I have described,” and ordered no further attempts to obtain “tapes, notes, or memoranda of Presidential conversations.”
Forgetting the tapes, Nixon stressed, would be for the country’s own good.
“I believe that by these actions I have taken today America will be spared the anguish of further indecision and litigation about the tapes,” Nixon wrote.
Now it was the following day, a Saturday afternoon, and Ruckelshaus, who had cut short a trip to Michigan, was huddled in Richardson’s office along with three other aides. Richardson had been summoned to the White House, and it was not hard to figure out why. Only the attorney general had the authority to remove Cox.
By midafternoon, Richardson returned to the Justice Department, where four of his colleagues were waiting for him. As they suspected, the president had ordered him to fire Cox. And Richardson had refused. He was prepared to resign as attorney general, he told them.
As he relayed what had happened, Ruckelshaus’s assistant interrupted the meeting, he remembered. There was a phone call for him in his office, one floor below. It was from the White House.
Ruckelshaus, who is now 84, said he went downstairs to answer the call but already knew who would be on the other line: White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig Jr.
Although he had received a call from Nixon once or twice, it was usually Haig who relayed the White House’s demands. Haig had periodically called on the Justice Department to try to rein Cox in when it came to certain aspects of the investigation.
Ruckelshaus said his answer was always the same: He could pass the White House objections on to Cox, but he wouldn’t try to order him to do anything.
This time Haig was adamant: Nixon had ordered Cox to be fired. Because the attorney general had refused, the authority now fell to Ruckelshaus.
“He was just insistent that was my responsibility to carry this out,” Ruckelshaus remembered. “And I said, ‘Not if I think he’s fundamentally wrong, which I do. Then my obligation is higher than just him.’ ”
“Your commander in chief has given you an order,” he said Haig replied.
Ruckelshaus was 41 at the time, with five young children. He’d served as Nixon’s administrator of the new Environmental Protection Agency, then as acting director of the FBI. He worried how he was going to support his family, but in his mind — and in Richardson’s — there was no question what course of action was the right one. When Cox had been appointed, Richardson had promised he would not dismiss him unless it was for “gross improprieties or malfeasance in office.” Cox had committed neither, and so there was no cause to fire him, they said.
Instead Ruckelshaus drafted a resignation letter and dictated it to his assistant to type:
I am, of course, sorry that my conscience will not permit me to carry out your instruction to discharge Archibald Cox, the letter read in part. My disagreement with that action at this time is too fundamental to permit me to act otherwise.
As a courier prepared to deliver his resignation letter to the White House, Ruckelshaus left his office. He and his family had made plans to have dinner at a friend’s house in Washington.
Outside, a young television reporter named Sam Donaldson was waiting in the halls of the Justice Department and began yelling questions.
“I got into the car and drove over to my friend’s house,” Ruckelshaus recalled. “I can still see Sam Donaldson chasing me down the hall.”
There were at first conflicting reports about what happened to Ruckelshaus, because Haig announced that Saturday night that the deputy attorney general had been fired. The following day, Nixon said that Ruckelshaus’s resignation had been accepted.
“So I can have it either way, I could either be fired or resigned,” Ruckelshaus said. “Officially I guess I resigned because the president announced it.”
It was U.S. Solicitor General Robert Bork, the third in succession in the Justice Department, who agreed to fire Cox — an act that would play a role in the refusal of the Senate to confirm for the Supreme Court in 1987.
Even as Ruckelshaus arrived as his friend’s dinner party that night, he said he didn’t really have a sense how big the news would be. But the unprecedented shake-up at the Justice Department would become known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” The phrase entered the Washington lexicon and has been used hundreds of times to describe other political beheadings, including President Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey.
In 1973, the Saturday Night Massacre triggered a public and political outcry that accelerated the eventual downfall of Nixon.
Cox, the now-ousted special prosecutor, delivered a statement that fateful Saturday night.
“Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men,” he said, “is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.”