Saturday Night Massacre

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The Saturday Night Massacre was the term used by political commentators[1] to refer to U.S. President Richard Nixon's dismissal of independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox, and as a result the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus on October 20, 1973, during the Watergate scandal.[2][3]


A.G. Elliot Richardson appointed Cox in May of that year, after having given assurances to the House Judiciary Committee that he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the events surrounding the Watergate break-in of June 17, 1972. The appointment was created as a Career Reserved position in the Justice department, which meant (a) it came under the authority of the Attorney General, and (b) the incumbent could not be removed for any reason other than "for cause" (e.g., gross improprieties or malfeasance in office). Richardson had, in his confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate, given the explicit promise not to use his authority to dismiss the Watergate Special Prosecutor, unless for cause.

When Cox issued a subpoena to President Nixon, asking for copies of taped conversations recorded in the Oval Office and authorized by Nixon, the President initially refused to comply. On Friday, October 19, 1973, Nixon offered what was later known as the Stennis Compromise—asking the infamously hard-of-hearing Senator John C. Stennis of Mississippi to review and summarize the tapes for the special prosecutor's office. Cox refused the compromise that same evening and it was believed that there would be a short rest in the legal maneuvering while government offices were closed for the weekend.

However, on the following day (a Saturday) Nixon ordered Attorney General Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused, and resigned in protest. Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. He also refused and resigned.[4][5]

Nixon then ordered the Solicitor General, Robert Bork (as acting head of the Justice Department), to fire Cox. Both Richardson and Ruckelshaus had given personal assurances to Congressional oversight committees that they would not interfere, but Bork had not. Although Bork later claimed that he believed Nixon's order to be valid and appropriate, he still considered resigning to avoid being "perceived as a man who did the President's bidding to save my job."[6] Nevertheless, having been brought to the White House by limousine and sworn in as Acting Attorney General, Bork wrote the letter firing Cox.[7] Initially, the White House claimed to have fired Ruckelshaus, but as The Washington Post article written the next day pointed out, "The letter from the President to Bork also said Ruckelshaus resigned."

On November 14, 1973, federal District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell ruled that the dismissal of Cox was illegal, in the absence of a finding of extraordinary impropriety as specified in the regulation establishing the special prosecutor's office.[8] Congress was infuriated by the act, which was seen as a gross abuse of presidential power. The public sent in an unusually large number of telegrams to both the White House and Congress.[9][10] Less than a week after the Saturday Night Massacre, an Oliver Quayle poll for NBC News showed that for the first time, a plurality of U.S. citizens now supported impeachment of Nixon, with 44% in favor, 43% opposed, and 13% undecided, with a sampling error of 2 to 3 percent.[11] In the days that followed, numerous resolutions of impeachment against the president were introduced in Congress.

Impact and legacy[edit]

Nixon was compelled to allow Bork to appoint a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, to continue the investigation. There was a question whether Jaworski would limit the investigation to the Watergate burglary alone, or follow Cox's lead and also look at broader corrupt activities, such as the "White House Plumbers".[12] As it turned out, Jaworski also looked at broader corrupt activities.[13]

While Nixon continued to refuse to turn over the actual tapes, he agreed to release transcripts of a large number of them. Nixon cited the fact that any audio pertinent to national security information would have to be redacted from the tapes. There was further controversy on November 7, when an 18½-minute portion of one tape was found to have been erased. Nixon's personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, said she had accidentally erased the tape by pushing the wrong foot pedal on her tape player while answering the phone. Later forensic analysis determined that the tape had been erased in several segments—at least five, and perhaps as many as nine.[14]

Nixon's presidency succumbed to mounting pressure resulting from the Watergate scandal and its cover-up. In the face of certain removal from office through the impeachment process against him, Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. The Ethics in Government Act of 1978 was a direct result of the Saturday Night Massacre.

In his posthumously published memoirs, Bork stated that Nixon promised him the next seat on the Supreme Court following Bork's role in the firings. Nixon was unable to carry out the promise after his resignation, but Ronald Reagan nominated Bork for the Supreme Court in 1987, though he was rejected by the Senate.[15]


  1. ^ Alexander Haig, 85; soldier-statesman managed Nixon resignation
  2. ^ Pres. Nixon's Press Secretary Ron Ziegler reading a statement (audio only), October 20, 1973.
  3. ^ "Nixon Forces Firing of Cox; Richardson, Ruckelshaus Quit". 1973-10-21. Retrieved 2009-10-02. 
  4. ^ Youngstown Vindicator (Ohio), Washington (AP), Nixon Fires Cox; Richardson Quits, Sunday, Oct. 21, 1973, page 1.
  5. ^ Tri-City Herald (Washington state), Washington (AP), Nixon fires Cox; Richardson quits, Sunday, Oct. 21, 1973, page 1.[dead link]
  6. ^ Noble, Kenneth (1987-07-02). "Bork Irked by Emphasis on His Role in Watergate". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-05-26. 
  7. ^ Noble, Kenneth B. (July 26, 1987). "New Views Emerge Of Bork's Role in Watergate Dismissals". The New York Times. 
  8. ^ Noble, Kenneth B. (July 26, 1987). "New Views Emerge Of Bork's Role in Watergate Dismissals". The New York Times. 
  9. ^ The Modesto Bee [California], McClatchy Newspapers Service and UPI, "Record Numbers Jam Western Union"[dead link] 'Western Union today reported a record 71,000 telegrams received in its Washington office about the firing [of] Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in the first 36 hours…" and "You Can Cheaply Wire (Cable) The White House"[dead link] "…special flat rate for public opinion messages to Washington, D.C.…up to 15 words, can be sent by dialing 1-800…$1.25 charge for the telegram is then billed to the calling person's telephone number…", Monday, Oct. 22, 1973, both articles on page A-2.
  10. ^ Gadsden Times [Alabama], "Impeachment Mail Floods Congress", Oct. 24, 1973, page 2. "…Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., had 270 telegrams for impeachment and about a dozen against it with telephone calls more evenly divided in sentiment. Sen. John G. Tower, R-Tex., reported 275 telegrams against Nixon, 16 for him;…"
  11. ^ Spokane Daily Chronicle, New York (AP), Poll Shows Many for Impeachment, Tuesdays, Oct. 23, 1973, page 14. "…shows 44 per cent favored impeaching President Nixon. Forty-three per cent opposed impeachment and 13 per cent were undecided, according to the poll…built-in sampling error of 2 to 3 per cent…"
  12. ^ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Nixon Hoping Jaworski Will Drop Plumber Probe”, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, Nov. 6, 1973, page 6.
  13. ^ The Free Lance-Star [Fredericksburg, Virginia], "Jaworski: In Cox's footsteps", Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, Nov. 19, 1973, page 4.
  14. ^ Clymer, Adam (May 9, 2003). "National Archives Has Given Up on Filling the Nixon Tape Gap". The New York Times. Archived from the original on September 1, 2010. Retrieved 2007-01-17. 
  15. ^ "Bork: Nixon Offered Next High Court Vacancy in '73". Yahoo News. ABC News. February 25, 2013. Archived from the original on 2013-03-01.