On October 20, 1973, the so-called Saturday Night Massacre propelled the Watergate scandal into a true constitutional crisis. Confronted with an order from President Richard Nixon to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, both Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus ’55 resigned. Although Solicitor General Robert Bork fired Cox, a public outcry forced Nixon to appoint a new special prosecutor, and the House of Representatives soon began impeachment hearings, which led to Nixon’s resignation. Ruckelshaus is the last surviving participant in that drama.
Did you have any hesitation about resigning?
No, I honestly didn’t. It seemed to me that what the president was asking us to do was fundamentally wrong. I had worked with Cox when I was acting director of the FBI [from April to June 1973], and he could not have been more cooperative.
What I did was mandated by my oath of office. You don’t resign for light and transient reasons. There has to be some fundamental wrong that the president is asking you to commit before you do that. Firing Cox seemed to fit right within that category.
Felt was the No. 2 guy at the FBI when I became acting director. While he was out of the office on vacation, stories began appearing in the Times about wiretaps that [J. Edgar] Hoover had ordered. We checked and records of those wiretaps were missing from the FBI files, so I started an internal investigation to trace them. After several weeks, we eventually found them in John Ehrlichman’s safe at the White House.
Stories about information obtained from the wiretaps continued to appear in the Times, so obviously there was a leak somewhere in the FBI. I received a call from a man who identified himself as a reporter who was writing these stories for the Times. He said, “I suppose you’re wondering where these leaks are coming from. Well, they’re coming from Mark Felt.”
I confronted Felt the next day. He denied being the source of the story, but I told him I had the information on good authority and didn’t believe his denials. He had violated every stricture at the FBI about the sanctity of information in their possession, that you don’t release that to the media, ever. The next morning, Felt had his resignation on my desk, which I took as an admission of guilt. Years later, Max Holland interviewed me for a book he was writing about Felt. Holland told me he didn’t think I had actually been talking to the Times reporter.
Do you see Felt as a hero?
Oh, no. I think Felt was a guy obsessed with taking Hoover’s place as FBI director. He was trying to feather his own nest and undercut his bosses at the FBI.
To what extent is Watergate responsible for our current cynicism about government?
It certainly contributed to it, but I think it started with the Vietnam War. Trust in government spiraled downward during the war, and things like Watergate gave it another shove in that direction.
Click here to read entire article, as published in the Princeton Alumni Weekly.