National Press Club

Players in 'Saturday Night Massacre' recall upholding rule of law

October 20, 2013 | By Jessica Wray

Panelists discuss "The Saturday Night Massacre" during a 40-year retrospective at the National Press Club, October 17, 2013.  Panelists are William Ruckelshaus, former U.S. Deputy Attorney General; Philip Heymann, former Associate Special Prosecutor to Archibald Cox; Moderator and 1994 Press Club President, Gil Klein; Ken Gormley, author, Archibald Cox: Conscience of a Nation; Bob Woodward, former Washington Post reporter; Jill Wine-Banks, Former Assistant Watergate Special Prosecutor and James

Panelists discuss "The Saturday Night Massacre" during a 40-year retrospective at the National Press Club, October 17, 2013. Panelists are William Ruckelshaus, former U.S. Deputy Attorney General; Philip Heymann, former Associate Special Prosecutor to Archibald Cox; Moderator and 1994 Press Club President, Gil Klein; Ken Gormley, author, Archibald Cox: Conscience of a Nation; Bob Woodward, former Washington Post reporter; Jill Wine-Banks, Former Assistant Watergate Special Prosecutor and James

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

The 'Saturday Night Massacre' that shook the national and started President Nixon's slide to resignation pitted power against rule of law, several of the key players said Oct. 17 at a National Press Club panel commemorating the 40th anniversary of the event.

On Oct. 20, 1973, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox as his investigation into the Watergate break-in revealed secret White House recordings that captured the president's role in the scandal. When Richardson refused and resigned, Nixon tapped Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. When he refused, Nixon turned to Solicitor General Robert Bork, who agreed to fire Cox.

“It was all about Nixon,” The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward said. Woodward's reporting with Carl Bernstein launched the Watergate investigation.

“It was using the power of the presidency to settle scores," Woodward said. "It wasn’t just the crimes and the abuse that broke Nixon out. It was the smallness of the vision, that he was always looking out for his own political interests.”

Woodward joined Ruckelshaus, Supreme Court Justice Stephan Breyer, who served on Cox’s staff, Associate Special Prosecutor Philip Heymann, Jill Wine-Banks, a prosecutor who served on the staff of Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski, and Jim Doyle, then Cox's press secretary.

NPC Past President Gil Klein, chairman of the Club’s History and Heritage Committee, and Ken Gormley, dean of the Duquesne University Law School, who has written extensively about Cox, moderated the event.

Breyer spoke of the integrity shown by Richardson and Cox, who risked their careers to uphold the law. Richardson "had promised the United States Senate that he would not fire Archie Cox," Breyer said. "Making a promise to the United States Senate is making a promise to the American people.”

In the end, Breyer said, “The rule of law, it held.”

The events that night spelled "real trouble" for the Justice Department, Ruckelshaus said.

“It was shaken to the foundation by what had happened," he said. "There were police, there were FBI agents surrounding both of our offices. They were surrounding the Special Prosecutor’s office.”

The recordings from the Oval Office would eventually reveal Nixon’s role in obstructing justice, and that’s why he wanted Cox fired, Wine-Banks said.

“You cannot listen to those tapes and not know that the president’s guilty,” she said.

Some Republicans had accused Cox, a Democrat, of targeting Nixon, a Republican. But Heymann said that was wrong. Cox, he said, "had no clue about how damning the evidence would be, but he knew it was his job to find out.”