Over this holiday period, I learned of the death of William Ruckelshaus. He died on Wednesday at the age of 87.
I do wish to pay him honor at Caffeinated Politics for what he did in 1973. He made for one of those moments in history which we all need to be aware of, and recognize as the way we should wish for all federal employees to act.
Ruckelshaus resigned as deputy attorney general rather than carry out President Richard Nixon’s illegal order to fire the independent special Watergate prosecutor in the constitutional crisis of 1973 known as the “Saturday Night Massacre. Now I fully understand he had an amazing career and his part that night decades ago should not be his legacy. But given how much I write on this blog about character, and the need for virtue in public servants means that stressing his role at that time needs to be underscored.
Readers of history will recall that by the time of that famed Saturday night Nixon had already lost many of his closest associates. By that time Ruckelshaus had been named acting head of the F.B.I.. The reason for that placement was due to his predecessor having allowed Nixon aides to examine Watergate files and had even destroyed evidence in the case. Then he was named the top deputy to the attorney general.
On the night of the massacre, Nixon ordered his top three Justice Department officials, one after another, to fire the Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox, rather than comply with his subpoena for nine incriminating Oval Office tape recordings. Ruckelshaus refused to fire Cox and resigned, as it should be noted his own dismissal was being issued by the White House. Attorney General Elliot Richardson also resigned that night and serves as another shining example of principle and adherence to law and order.
We need more people like Ruckelshaus in the government today. People who are experts in their field, doing their jobs with honor and mindful of the Constitution. Consider the need to even write such lines, or use a blog post to make such a point. Yes, he was a man of courage in harsh political times. But is it not a sad statement, especially about our current crisis, that honesty, decency, and sound character is considered to be extraordinary, rather than the norm?
Integrity matters. It did then. It does now.