Editors' note: Each day during the holidays, Crosscut will revisit top stories from the last year in a specific category. Today's focus is Politics. This article was originally published March 29, 2012.
The following is drawn from a speech recently given to a Seattle audience.
The so-called Saturday Night Massacre took place in October of 1973, almost 40 years ago. As the only surviving massacree, I thought I should get my version down before my memory completely disappears. What follows is my remembrance of the story buttressed by as much research as seemed necessary.
In April of 1973, our country was headed for a crisis that would test our constitutional system. A sitting president would soon stand accused of lying to the American people about his role in the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up. “What did he know and when did he know it?” would ask Sen. Howard Baker in the Ervin Committee hearings that commenced later that same spring.
My part in this saga began on Friday, April 21, 1973. I was tending my rose garden in suburban Maryland, having taken the day off from my duties as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Howard Baker’s questions, while still academic to me, were troublesome regarding the President I served and wanted to admire. As Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, I was a bystander to the rapidly unfolding Watergate events. I had no need to answer those questions — only observe others struggling with their awful meaning.
This all changed with startling suddenness that afternoon when my wife, Jill, informed me from our front door that Air Force One was calling. Only in Washington can buildings (as in, “the White House said…”) and planes talk. The call was a summons from the President, who was returning from a speech in New Orleans, to meet him in the oval office at 4 that afternoon. I had no idea what he wanted nor did Air Force One tell me.
So I summoned my driver (we all had drivers in those days) who maneuvered me to the White House at the appointed hour. I had been in the oval office many times during my tour in the Nixon Administration but this time was a first for me. When I was ushered in, there sat the President alone. Always before, there had been at least one aide, usually Bob Haldeman, taking notes. This had to be serious. Almost immediately, the President asked me to let him send my name to the Senate as the next Director of the FBI. Needless to say, this caught me a bit off guard. I asked him what had happened to Pat Gray, whose nomination had been pending for almost a year since J. Edgar Hoover’s death. He told me that Gray, in his Senate confirmation hearings, had admitted to destroying some documents relevant to the Watergate investigation and that he was finished.
“Would I take the job?” he asked. I had never seen the President so agitated. I was worried about his stability. He told me that on Sunday he was going to fire Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, and John Dean, the then-obscure White House Counsel. He had not yet informed these gentlemen of their fate and he asked me to keep this news to myself.
It would be a gross overstatement to say that being the director of the FBI had been a lifelong ambition of mine. I had spent many years in and around law enforcement, first for five years in the Indiana Attorney General’s office and then for two years as an Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Civil Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. I recognized vigorous and just law enforcement was important to our country. I had great respect for the FBI as an institution. With no offense intended to the President or the Bureau, I just did not want to spend an appreciable part of my life pursuing the investigation of federal crimes. I told the President that.
We talked about the situation for over an hour, with Nixon constantly urging me to take the job and my demurring. We finally compromised. I would report to the FBI on Monday, as Acting Director, and stay there overseeing the Watergate investigation until we could recruit a permanent successor to Hoover. (By the way, the tape of this conversation has never been released so for now you will have to take my word for who said what. The tapes on either side of my oval office visit have been available for some time.) In truth, my memory of the events of that day and the six months that followed are quite vivid more than 38 years later.
Once we had struck a deal, the President called in Ron Ziegler, his press secretary, and began to discuss how and where the announcement of my appointment would be made. All of the President’s woes seemed to slip away. He was now in charge again. He was getting ready, through me, to take on the press. He suggested I go to EPA and make the announcement personally. I told him most of the environmental reporters at EPA hardly knew where the FBI was and were not equipped to properly handle such a story. Ziegler and I convinced him that we would have to confront the White House press corps with the news and we might as well do it in the blue room and in the White House and do it now. He agreed.
I had to put one final question to him, “Are you in any way involved in the Watergate? The press will ask me that question and I ought to have your answer.” He made a most convincing case to me that he was in no way involved in anything to do with the Watergate or its cover-up. I so informed the press when the inevitable question was asked and they reacted with their usual trusting demeanor — more like a roar that sounded like “sez you.”
I well recall my first morning as FBI Director, on the Monday following my meeting with the President. On my desk upon arrival was a letter to the President from the Deputy FBI Director and the Associate Directors and special agents in charge protesting my appointment. The Deputy Director assured me nothing personal was intended; they just felt it was inappropriate to have a bird watcher as Hoover’s successor. The Deputy Director, Mark Felt, of Deep Throat fame, was actively lobbying for the job as director and subsequently resigned when confronted by me for leaking classified information to The New York Times, an unforgivable sin for an FBI agent.
That same morning, I attended a hastily called staff meeting in the Attorney General’s office at which Dick Kleindienst emotionally announced his resignation. He was extremely bitter at being lumped with Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Dean and at being forced by the President to resign with them. The meeting, with many of my old colleagues at the department present, was punctuated by several emotional, even resentful speeches directed at the White House staff and the President himself. This was a most unusual occurrence at the Department of Justice.
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