Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The "Saturday Night Massacre" and the Resignation of Richard Nixon

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe the final days of Richard Nixon’s presidency.

The Senate and Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox demanded that the White House turn over tape recordings that had been secretly recorded in the Oval Office and which included conversations related to the Watergate Scandal. Nixon refused, citing “executive privilege,” the legal argument that presidents need candid advice from their advisors in order for the Executive Branch to function and that the Constitution’s “Separation of Powers” doctrine allows presidents to keep certain conversations from public scrutiny.

Angered by Cox’s persistence regarding the tapes, Nixon on the evening of October 20, 1973 ordered his Attorney General Elliott Richardson fire Cox. Richardson resigned rather than comply. William D. Ruckelshaus stood next in line in the Justice Department and Nixon fired him minutes later when he also refused to follow orders. Finally, the Solicitor General, Robert Bork (later unsuccessfully nominated by Ronald Reagan to the United States Supreme Court) carried out Nixon’s command. The incident became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre” and deepened the growing public perception that Nixon had something to hide.

On Nov. 1, Nixon was forced to name a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, who continued to press the White House to release the tapes. On March 1, 1974 a federal grand jury returned indictments against seven former top White House officials, including one-time Attorney General John Mitchell, presidential advisors H.R. “Bob” Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and special counsel (and later Christian evangelist) Charles Colson, on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice. The grand jury named Nixon as an “unindicted co-conspirator.”

Liberal Washington Post columnist Nicholas Von Hoffman described Nixon as “the dead mouse on the country’s kitchen floor,” a view less harshly shared by a growing majority. With increasing evidence gathering against Nixon, who was also charged with ordering IRS audits of political opponents, the House Judiciary Committee began impeachment hearings in March, the first such event since Andrew Johnson’s impeachment proceedings just after the Civil War.

Aware that the tapes themselves contained evidence of criminal wrongdoing, Nixon instead released 1,200 pages of heavily edited transcripts of Watergate-related conversations. Nixon’s reputation took a further hit as the publicly prudish president was revealed as an angry, foul-mouthed man whose many obscenities were replaced in the transcripts by the soon-to-be infamous phrase “expletive deleted.” Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, a member of the president’s own party, called the president’s words in the transcript “deplorable, shabby, disgusting, and immoral.”

The transcripts did not satisfy Jaworski, who petitioned the Supreme Court to order the White House to release 42 tapes. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in The United States v. Nixon that the president must comply with the request. Included among the recordings was a June 23, 1972 conversation that revealed that, in contradiction to his public statements, Nixon knew that the Watergate burglars were tied to the re-election campaign and that former Attorney General Mitchell had helped plan the break-in.

Stories circulated during Nixon’s last week in office, from August 2-9, 1974, that the president was drinking to the point of intoxication. Son-in-law Edward Cox told frightened listeners that Nixon was “up walking the halls last night, talking to pictures of former presidents – giving speeches and talking to the pictures on the wall.”

Between July 27 and 30, the Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment – abuse of powers, obstruction of justice and defiance of House Judiciary Committee subpoenas – but turned down two proposed articles related to his use of public money to improve his personal property and his bombing of Cambodia without Congressional approval. Nixon’s voter approval rating had dropped to 24 percent. With Democrats controlling more than two-thirds of the votes in the chamber, it was clear that the House of Representatives would vote to impeach the President, leaving the matter in the hands of the Senate where a two-thirds vote was necessary for conviction. Nixon would be the first president to stand trial in the Senate in 106 years.

Complying with the Supreme Court, on August 5 Nixon released three tapes containing damaging conversations demonstrating his hands-on management of a criminal cover-up. This was the so-called “smoking gun,” and the president’s remaining support in the Senate vanished. The deciding moment came on August 7 when a delegation of Republican senators, including former GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania told the president that he could count on maybe only 16 to 18 members of the upper chamber to vote for acquittal.

That night, Nixon met with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and, with tears in his eyes, asked the former professor, “Will history treat me more kindly than my contemporaries?” Kissinger reminded Nixon of the détente achieved with the Soviet Union, the diplomatic opening to China and the conclusion of the Vietnam War. The president sobbed and then asked Kissinger to pray with him. The president kneeled and “Kissinger felt he had no alternative but to kneel down, too,” Woodward and Bernstein wrote in their book, The Final Days. “The President prayed out loud, asking for help, rest, peace, and love. How could a President and a country be torn apart by such small things?”

Nixon announced his resignation – the first by an American president – during a televised speech the next night, August 8, from the Oval Office. Before retreating to his home in California the next day, he said goodbye to his cabinet as the live television cameras looked on. The August 9 farewell speech was classic Nixon, at different times eloquent, self-pitying and defiant. “Always remember,” he told his staff, “others may hate you – but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” Sadly, it was advice Nixon never took to heart.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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