It may not rank up there with Dec. 7, 1941, or Nov. 23, 1963, or Sept. 11, 2001, but the night of Oct. 20, 1973, is not far below in my memory bank.
For those under 40 who may be wondering why, that was the date of the Saturday Night Massacre, when Nixon ordered the dismissal of Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned rather than comply, as did his second in command, William Ruckelshaus. Into the vacuum stepped Solicitor General Robert Bork, who was only too happy to oblige.
When news of that development came in on the AP teletype, a shiver of excitement swept across the newsroom. We sensed that a significant step had been taken, but we didn't know where it would lead. Ten months later, we found out, when Nixon, facing impeachment, resigned from the presidency.
Editorial Page Editor Bill Lawton came in that night from whatever he'd been doing to write a lead editorial on the event for the next day's paper, an editorial that began with these sentences:
"With every day that goes by, Richard Nixon manages to look more as though he was born to the presidency rather than elected to it. He has repeatedly defied the courts, ignored the prerogatives of Congress and refused to acknowledge any limits on the power of the presidency."
With no more than a simple name change, that eerily prophetic editorial could have run in this paper yesterday, today or any day this month.
That editorial captured a sense that was growing nationwide; that the American people would put up with only so much blatant disregard for the very bedrock laws that had made this country what it was.
Richard Nixon was one of the brightest men to occupy the White House in the past 50 years; he also was one of the most amoral. And he was almost totally lacking in what the social scientists today call "people skills." He was saddled with an increasingly unpopular war, but it was one he inherited, not one he started on false premises.
The Watergate break-in may indeed have been nothing but a third-rate burglary, as his press secretary called it, but it was the cover-up, not the deed, that eventually fetched Nixon low. That and his misfortune to be confronted by an aggressive national press corps that had not yet evolved from vertebrate to its current invertebrate status.
Thirty-three years later, we have a nominal president who virtually dismisses the U. S. Supreme Court, leads the country into a war of choice behind a walking barrage of lies and flawed intelligence, brushes aside the Geneva Conventions as outdated and immaterial, treats the Constitution as just a scrap of paper, sanctions torture and secret prison camps and blandly lies about them. And what is the reaction?
Nearly 50 percent of the public still believes his bogus claims that Saddam Hussein was part of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, thanks in no small part to a press corps that has spent the past five years trotting along at his heels, eagerly lapping up every kibbled ration he tosses to them, no matter how noisome.
Bill Lawton's editorial ended with these words:
"The U.S. needs a strong president, but not an emperor."
The past is, indeed, prologue.
David Rossie is associate editor; his column is published on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.
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