Reflections on a ‘Saturday Night Massacre’.

President Nixon has now precipitated the confrontation with the courts and Congress which he said he sought to avoid. Enraged by his inability to extricate himself from Watergate and the other scandals which have earned for his Administration the odious distinction of being the most corrupt in American history, he took advantage of the crisis in the Middle East to stage what was tantamount to a coup by executive fiat, carried out on orders of “the Commander in Chief.” But not surprisingly, the wretched qualities which have surfaced at various stages of his career–low cunning, an obsession with “enemies” and a hateful attitude toward critics and opponents–are glaringly revealed in his latest political Putsch, with the not unlikely result that he is in more serious trouble than at any time since Watergate hit the headlines. But if he is in trouble, so is the country. For he has now struck out against principles of constitutional government which we have accepted, taught and practiced for nearly two centuries.

Watch the Nixon mind in action. His “compromise” offer on the tapes was, in the words of James Reston, “the trick play of a desperate man.” He had said that he would abide by a “definitive” court decision on the tapes, just as he had also said that executive privilege would not be invoked to shield his aides in the Watergate inquiry. But rather than risk a decision by the Supreme Court after the Court of Appeals had ruled against him 5 to 2, he decided to stage a quick executive coup, under cover of the Arab-Israeli war and relying on the reluctance of Congress even to discuss impeachment. As he saw it, noncompliance with the Court of Appeals decision would be less dangerous than thumbing his nose at the Supreme Court’s writ. An unappealed Court of Appeals decision would in itself be “definitive” on the issues, but a Supreme Court decision would have greater public impact…

The President’s last-minute decision to turn the tapes over to Judge Sirica is in the pattern of his previous feints and retreats. Startled by the “fire-storm” which the departure of Cox, Richardson and Ruckelshaus ignited, he has beaten an ignominious retreat. But he has retreated before and later returned to the attack, and his latest concession is less significant than it appears. One issue has been momentarily settled, but new ones have emerged and nothing is really settled. Yielding the tapes is “a single exception,” we are told, to his insistence on executive privilege even where his own involvement is in question. The availability of notes, memoranda and documents–material which grows more important with each new disclosure–has not been conceded. The public still does not know the contents of the tapes and, in view of what has happened, its curiosity has been whetted. The offer of summaries to the Ervin committee has been withdrawn and the President is now charged with having deceived Senators Ervin and Baker by not telling them of his intention to fire Cox. So the committee will continue to press its demands for the tapes. The public now knows that it was not Cox who was “out to get the President” but rather the President who was out to get Cox. He was so eager to be rid of Cox and liquidate the special unit that he did not give Richardson a chance to respond to the ouster order. Under these circumstances, the “fire storm” is not likely to subside. So once again the President has bought a little time, at enormous cost, but is still the captive of his own tricky stratagems.

What all of this constitutes is obstruction of justice on a massive scale. The resistance of Richardson and Ruckelshaus, which was not anticipated, upset the clever plot and caused White House spokesmen to express their surprise that the public reaction should be so intense. How, these spokesmen said, could the public so misunderstand the Commander in Chief–the more so since the Middle East war was probably started because Watergate had weakened his prestige and called in question his machismo.