Key event in Watergate scandal recalled today

Panel examines 'Saturday Night Massacre'

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WASHINGTON -- The stunning "Saturday Night Massacre," a pivotal moment in the Watergate investigation, will be examined today by a panel of experts on the scandal that brought down the Nixon presidency.

Ken Gormley, Duquesne Law School dean, is bringing several key players together in Washington for an in-depth discussion of President Richard Nixon's dramatic firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who had aggressively sought the release of Oval Offices tapes. Those tapes would eventually show Nixon's complicity in the cover-up of the Watergate break-in.

Mr. Gormley was a college freshman then and mostly interested in finding a good place to "hang out" at the University of Pittsburgh, but even then he knew the significance of the moment -- if not the fact that he would come to write a book about its central figure.

"It was a dramatic time. I remember there was a sense of horror on the college campus that a president would think that he was so omnipotent that he could shut down this criminal investigation because it had gotten too close for comfort," he recalled in a phone interview.

The unrelenting Cox became something of a folk hero and, after his firing, returned to Harvard Law School as a professor, where Mr. Gormley became his teaching assistant and an admirer who, years later, would write the special prosecutor's biography.

In it, Mr. Gormley describes the freshly fired prosecutor telling reporters at the National Press Club that he wasn't "out to get the president of the United States" but ultimately had to stick by what he thought was right and insist on getting the tapes.

Nixon had offered to allow a single senator, hard-of-hearing Mississippi Democrat John C. Stennis, to listen to the tapes and summarize their contents.

Cox's rejection of the compromise inspired a presidential order for Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Assistant Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. Both resigned rather than follow the order. That left in charge Solicitor General Robert Bork, a Pittsburgh native, who carried it out.

The firing led to public outcry, calls for impeachment and news reports of a "grave and profound crisis in which the president has set himself up against his own attorney general and Department of Justice."

Forty years later, at the Press Club where Cox held his famous news conference, Mr. Gormley is convening today a panel of key players in the so-called Saturday Night Massacre.

They include Mr. Ruckelshaus; Harvard law professor Philip Heymann, who had been deputy special prosecutor under Cox; former Cox press secretary James Doyle; Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and Jill Wine-Banks, who served on the special prosecution team; and Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, who uncovered the Watergate scandal with his reporting partner Carl Bernstein.

Mr. Gormley wanted to create an intimate environment for the talk, so only 120 people were issued invitations. C-SPAN 3, however, will air the discussion on American History TV at 8 p.m. Saturday, the actual anniversary of the resignations and firing.

Mr. Gormley still sees lessons to be learned from Watergate.

"Every president in modern times has had to look over his shoulder and realize that the ghosts of Watergate are not far behind ... and that the people themselves can ultimately drive out and remove a public official who abuses their trust," Mr. Gormley said.


Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello:, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets. First Published October 16, 2013 8:00 PM


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