Elliot Richardson was appointed United States Secretary of Defense on January 30, 1973.
When President Nixon selected Elliot Richardson as Secretary of Defense, the press described him as an excellent manager and administrator, perhaps the best in the cabinet.
During his confirmation hearing, Richardson expressed agreement with Nixon’s policies on such issues as the adequacy of U.S. strategic forces, NATO and relationships with other allies, and Vietnam.
Although Richardson promised to examine the budget carefully to identify areas for savings, and in fact later ordered the closing of some military installations, he cautioned against precipitate cuts.
As Richardson told a Senate committee,
“Significant cuts in the Defense Budget now would seriously weaken the U.S. position on international negotiations—in which U.S. military capabilities, in both real and symbolic terms, are an important factor.”
Similarly, Richardson strongly supported continued military assistance at current levels. During his short tenure, Richardson spent much time testifying before congressional committees on the proposed FY 1974 budget and other Defense matters.
Richardson would serve as Secretary of Defense for only a few short months before becoming President Nixon’s Attorney General, a move that soon put him in the Watergate spotlight.
Then on Saturday, October 20, 1973, after Richardson had served just five months as Attorney General, President Nixon ordered him to fire the top lawyer investigating the Watergate scandal, Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox.
Attorney General Richardson had promised Congress he would not interfere with the Special Prosecutor, and, rather than disobey the President or break his promise, Elliot Richardson resigned.
President Nixon subsequently asked Richardson’s second-in-command, Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, to carry out the order.
Ruckelshaus too had promised to not interfere, and also tendered his resignation.
The third in command, Solicitor General Robert Bork, also planned to resign, but Richardson persuaded him not to in order to ensure proper leadership at the Department of Justice during the crisis.
Bork carried out the President’s order, thus completing the events generally referred today as the Saturday Night Massacre.
Richardson had appointed Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox in May of 1973, 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
- it came under the authority of the Attorney General.
- the incumbent could not be removed for any reason other than “for cause” (e.g. gross improprieties or malfeasance in office).
Elliot Richardson had, in his confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate, given the explicit promise not to use his ministerial authority to dismiss the Watergate Special Prosecutor, unless for cause.
When Cox issued a subpoena to President Nixon on Friday, October 19, 1973 asking for copies of taped conversations recorded in the Oval Office and authorized by Nixon as evidence, the president initially refused to comply.
Then on Friday, October 19, 1973, Nixon offered what was later known as the Stennis Compromise—asking U.S. Senator John C. Stennis to review and summarize the tapes for the special prosecutor’s office. Since Stennis was famously hard-of-hearing, 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, Richardson refused, and resigned in protest. Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. He also refused and resigned.
President Nixon then ordered the Solicitor General, Robert Bork (as acting head of the Justice Department) to fire Cox.
Though Bork claims that he believed Nixon’s order to be valid and appropriate, he considered resigning to avoid being “perceived as a man who did the President’s bidding to save my job.”
Nevertheless, having been brought to the White House by limousine and sworn in as Acting Attorney General, Bork wrote the letter firing Cox.
Initially, the White House claimed to have fired Ruckelshaus.
Congress was infuriated by President Nixon’s actions, which were seen as a gross abuse of presidential power.
The Saturday Night Massacre was the term given by political commentators to U.S. President Richard Nixon’s executive dismissal of independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox, and the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus on October 20, 1973 during the Watergate scandal.
The public sent in an unusually large number of telegrams to both the White House and Congress.
In 1974, Elliot Richardson received the U.S. Senator John Heinz Award for Greatest Public Service by an Elected or Appointed Official, an award given out annually by Jefferson Awards.
During the Gerald Ford administration, Richardson served as Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1975 to 1976 and as United States Secretary of Commerce from 1976 to 1977.
Although Richardson had been frequently discussed in the early 1970s as a likely candidate for President in 1976, Richardson’s acceptance in 1975 of the appointment as Ambassador to the Court of St. James, as it is formally titled, effectively eliminated him from the domestic scene during the pre-election period.
In departing for that position, he indicated to reporters that he would not run unless Ford decided against running.
From 1977 to 1980, Richardson served as an Ambassador at Large and Special Representative of President Jimmy Carter for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and head of the U.S. delegation to the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea.
In 1984, Richardson ran for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Paul Tsongas. Although Richardson was favored to win the seat, he was defeated in the GOP primary by more conservative candidate Ray Shamie, who lost the general election to John F. Kerry.
Richardson was a moderate-liberal Republican, and his defeat at the hands of the very conservative Shamie was seen as symbolizing the decline of the moderate wing of the GOP, even in a section of the country where it was historically strong.
In 1994, Richardson backed President Bill Clinton during his struggle against Paula Jones’ charge of sexual harassment.
In 1998, Richardson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
On December 31, 1999, Richardson died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Boston, Massachusetts, at the age of 79. Major media outlets, such as CNN, recognized him as the “Watergate martyr” for refusing an order from President Nixon to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
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