November 29, 2019
William D. Ruckelshaus died this week. In 2015, President Barack Obama presented Ruckelshaus with the nation’s highest civilian honor - the Medal of Freedom.
Ruckelshaus was recognized for his dedicated service in fighting pollution and serving as the first leader of the Environmental Protection Agency. Tucked away in the White House statement announcing his award was the following passage, “During the Watergate crisis, Ruckelshaus and Attorney General Elliot Richardson chose to resign rather than fire the Watergate special prosecutor. Their principled stance was a pivotal moment for the Justice Department and galvanized public opinion for upholding the rule of law.”
In 1972, five men hired by the committee to re-elect President Richard Nixon broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Building in Washington D.C.
About a year later, Archibald Cox was appointed to investigate the matter.
Cox demanded that the White House turn over 10 hours of secret Oval Office recordings, some of which could implicate the president in covering-up the break-in.
Later that year, Nixon, feeling the investigation closing in on him, demanded the Department of Justice fire Cox for refusing to obey the president’s order to abandon his demand for the “White House tapes.”
Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned rather than dismiss Cox. Nixon then turned to Ruckelshaus, his Deputy Attorney General, to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus chose to resign as well. The incident became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”
Robert Bork, the solicitor general, became acting attorney general and fired Cox. Within minutes, the White House sent the FBI to seal the offices of the Special Prosecutor, Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General.
Under enormous public pressure, Nixon appointed a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski. He eventually obtained the missing tapes and Nixon resigned the following year.
Ruckelshaus is certainly not a household name, but he was a true American hero. He told The New York Times years later, “I thought what the president was doing was fundamentally wrong - I was convinced that Cox had only been doing what he had the authority to do; what was really of concern to the president and the White House was that he was too close. He hadn’t engaged in any extraordinary improprieties, quite the contrary.”
Ruckelshaus took a principled stand and was willing to put it all on the line for what he believed in - the rule of law. The conduct of our current president reveals just how few American heroes we have today.
Ruckelshaus displayed, as Ernest Hemingway coined it, “grace under fire.”
In his letter of resignation, reprinted at the time by The New York Times, Ruckelshaus politely thanked President Nixon for the opportunity to serve and wished him well, but admonished that “my conscious will not permit me to carry out your instructions to discharge Archibald Cox. My disagreement with that action at this time is too fundamental to permit me to act otherwise.”
Compare Ruckelshaus’ statement with that of recently fired Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, who lashed out at President Donald Trump writing in the Washington Post, ”(T)he president has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military, to fight ethically or to be governed by a uniform set of rules and practices.”
In 2018, Ruckelshaus wrote in the Washington Post, the “Saturday Night Massacre” was not only the beginning of the end for Nixon, “but it also accelerated the growing wave of political cynicism and distrust in our government we are still living with today. One manifestation of that legacy: a president who will never admit he uttered a falsehood and a Congress too often pursuing only a partisan version of the truth.”
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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