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The Words Of Watergate
AN ANNIVERSARY LOOK BACK AT THE BIGGEST PRESIDENTIAL SCANDAL EVER, THROUGH THE CHANGES IT WROUGHT IN THE LANGUAGE
October 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 6
The failed operation had large repercussions. After the Watergate burglars were brought to trial in January 1973, the Fielding break-in became one of the “seamy things” that Hunt threatened to expose if he was not paid off (see cancer on the Presidency ). Later, in mid-April of 1973, John Dean revealed some of the details to federal prosecutors, and information about the break-in became one of the grounds on which the government’s case against Ellsberg was dismissed.
Of the plumbers, only one, David Young, avoided engaging in criminal acts and thus stayed out of prison. He gave the unit its enduring name, however. Reportedly inspired by a relative, who told him that his grandfather, a plumber, would have been proud of him for combating leaks, he placed a sign, MR. YOUNG—PLUMBER , on the door of room 16 in the basement of the Executive Office Building, where the Special Investigations Unit was headquartered.
The night of October 20, 1973, possibly the most tumultuous in American political history, when the special Watergate prosecutor and the nation’s two top law officers lost their jobs within the space of an hour and a half .
The cause of the bloodbath was a subpoena that the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, had issued on July 23 for tapes and other records relating to nine key White House meetings, including the one between Nixon and H. R. Haldeman that turned out to have the infamous gap . President Nixon resisted Cox’s demand on the ground of executive privilege . Turning over the tapes, White House lawyers asserted, would jeopardize “the independence of the three branches of government.” The subpoena was upheld, however, by the presiding judge at the Watergate trials, U.S. District Court Judge John J. Sirica, and then by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The White House offered a compromise. Transcripts would be supplied but not the tapes themselves, with the transcripts to be authenticated by John C. Stennis, a seventy-two-year-old Democratic senator from Mississippi. Cox rejected this. Nixon, who had been anxious for some time to rid himself of Cox, proceeded to harden his position. Not only would the special prosecutor have to accept the White House’s offer, like it or not, but he would have to “make no further attempts by judicial process to obtain tapes, notes, or memoranda of Presidential conversations.” The President knew that Cox could not accept this restriction.
Nixon issued his directive on Friday evening. Cox held a press conference early Saturday afternoon. Prevailing wisdom in the White House was that he would announce his resignation. He did not. Instead he said he would continue to press for the tapes, and if Nixon continued to refuse to turn them over, he might ask to have the President cited for contempt of court.
Almost immediately the White House chief of staff, Gen. Alexander Haig, telephoned Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and ordered him to fire Cox. Richardson said he couldn’t do that. At his Senate confirmation hearings he had pledged to give the special prosecutor a free hand; only in the event of “extraordinary improprieties” would he dismiss him. Richardson also had made this promise to Cox himself when he hired his former Harvard Law professor as special prosecutor.
The proverbial smoking gun was the piece of evidence needed to prove that Nixon himself had conspired to obstruct justice. It wasn’t found until August 1974.
Richardson then asked Haig for a meeting with the President so that he could tender his resignation. When the two met, at 4:30 P.M., Nixon tried to dissuade Richardson, urging him to put the national interest above his personal pledge. His resignation, Nixon suggested, might interfere with his efforts to bring peace to the Middle East. Richardson was shaken but not swayed. He felt he had no choice but to resign.
General Haig called Richardson’s deputy at the Justice Department, William D. Ruckelshaus, and told him that the President was ordering him to fire the special prosecutor. Ruckelshaus also preferred to resign.
Working his way down the chain of command, General Haig called the number three man in the department, Robert H. Bork, the solicitor general. Bork found that his conscience and sense of duty allowed him to accept the order. At about 6:00 P.M. he signed a White House-drafted letter firing Cox.
Press secretary Ronald L. Ziegler informed the world of what had happened at about 8:25 P.M. Ziegler said that the office of special prosecutor had been abolished. Its functions would be transferred back to the previously discredited Justice Department. The same evening, Haig dispatched FBI agents to seal the offices of Cox, Richardson, and Ruckelshaus.
For a very short while it seemed to some that Nixon had pulled off a remarkable coup. However, a tremendous surge of popular outrage over the weekend followed by the introduction of more than twenty bills in Congress the next week calling for an impeachment investigation forced the President’s hand. He agreed to yield up the tapes, and on November 1 a new special prosecutor was named: Leon Jaworski, a Houston lawyer.