Once upon a dark time, three Republican men took the oath of office and served in the administration of President Richard M. Nixon. They were Elliot Richardson, William Ruckelshaus and Robert Bork. Respectively, they were the U.S. Attorney General, the deputy Attorney General and the Solicitor General. One fateful Saturday night in October 1973, each faced a choice, honor their oath to protect and defend the Constitution or renege. Two chose the high road; one decided that executive authority took precedence.
Richardson was a New England blueblood and a lifelong Republican; his father was a physician and a professor at Harvard Medical School. He attended Harvard and graduated in 1941. But his further education was interrupted by the war in Europe where he served in the U.S. Army infantry. His unit landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy during the D-day invasion and in subsequent operations in France he was a awarded the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.
After the war, Richardson returned to Harvard and received a law degree in 1947. He served as a law clerk to both U.S. circuit court and Supreme Court justices and was in private practice at prestigious law firms.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Richardson as a legislative assistant in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1957. He would later serve as secretary of that department, Secretary of Defense, undersecretary of State and Attorney General, all under Nixon between 1969 and 1973.
William D. Ruckelshaus was born in Indianapolis, Indiana to a long line of prominent lawyers and active Republicans. After graduating high school, he inexplicitly served two years in the U.S. Army as a drill sergeant. Then Ruckelshaus took his undergraduate degree at Princeton, graduated from Harvard Law School and joined the family law firm in 1957.
Later he served in various politically appointed positions in the Indiana government, including counsel to the Indiana Stream Pollution Control Board. Ruckelshaus also helped draft the 1961 Indiana Air Pollution Control Act and made a losing bid for the U.S. Senate in 1968.
No doubt due to his connections in the GOP, Nixon appointed Ruckelshaus as an assistant U.S. attorney general in 1969. Then Nixon tapped him as the first administrator of the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency in early 1970. Ruckelshaus left EPA in April 1973 to serve as acting FBI director during the Watergate investigation and then briefly as deputy attorney general at the Justice Department.
Robert H. Bork was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to a middleclass family. His father was a purchasing agent for a steel company and his mother was a school teacher. He graduated from the University of Chicago Law School and was awarded a Phi Beta Kappa key with his J.D. degree in 1953. Obviously, he was a brilliant lawyer.
After a stint with the Kirkland and Ellis law firm, Bork was hired as a professor at the Yale Law School. There he formed his belief in “originalism,” a theory embraced by today’s conservative justices. Originalism calls for judges to adhere to the “original intent” of the framers when interpreting the U.S. Constitution. Bork was also known for supporting corporate conglomerates and opposing civil rights legislation.
Bork was appointed Solicitor General of the United States by Nixon in June 1973 at the height of the Watergate investigations.
So it was that these three men had their “rendezvous with destiny” on October 20, 1973. That evening, Nixon made a desperate decision to fire the man who was investigating the Watergate scandal, Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. What followed came to be called the “Saturday night massacre.”
When asked to fire Cox, Richardson resigned effective immediately. Deputy Ruckelshaus also refused to dismiss Cox and immediately resigned. When Nixon asked third-in-line Bork to fire Cox, it’s reported that he too considered resigning. But in the end, he complied.
Unfortunately for Nixon, this drama was all for naught. He was forced to appoint a replacement for Cox; the Supreme Court required him to produce the damning White House tapes; and after learning his support in Congress had eroded from Republican leaders, including Sen. Barry Goldwater, Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974.
Why bring up this decades-old affair? Well, Mr. Ruckelshaus just died in November; it highlights how the GOP has changed since 1974; and another Republican president is facing impeachment.
I believe President Trump’s affronts to the Constitution are actually worse than Nixon’s. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report details numerous attempts Trump made to obstruct justice and halt the Russia investigation. And Trump’s scheme of withholding critical military aid to coerce Ukraine’s President to announce an investigation of a political opponent is as much a crime as the Watergate burglary, which attempted to collect intelligence on a political opponent.
Yet, if you searched the GOP from bottom to top and from state to federal, I doubt if you would find many Republican officials that compare to ethical heroes Richardson and Ruckelshaus, or even to conservative Goldwater. Today, the party is chockablock with the likes of ultra-conservative Bork who will yield to executive authority and violate their oath of office.
That’s why today’s Republicans won’t think of suggesting that Trump resign and why this president will not be convicted by the Republican-controlled Senate no matter what crimes he commits.
Sadly, the GOP of the Nixon era no longer exists. But we desperately need it back.