OpinionOpinion L.A.

Watergate is worth it, honest

U.S. CongressRichard Nixon

One of the commenters on the post "Watergate's Saturday Night Massacre gets more interesting with age" asked: "Why is the liberal/progressive LATs [sic] replaying 40-year-old history?"

Here's the answer.

First, illustrator Steve Brodner came to The Times with a cartoon about the events of Oct. 20, 1973. He was inspired by a friend who is in his 20s and whose reaction to Watergate is "What's the big deal?"

To Brodner, that represented insufficient knowledge of the serious issues raised by the "long national nightmare" that began with the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters, tipped toward constitutional crisis as President Nixon tried to derail a criminal investigation by firing Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox in the Saturday Night Massacre, and ended only when Nixon resigned rather than be impeached by the full House and tried — almost certainly to lose — in the Senate.

Brodner thought a history lesson was in order. We on the Op-Ed page agreed.

In the editing process, I came across a firsthand account of the Saturday Night Massacre, a 2009 speech by William Ruckelshaus, who held the job of deputy attorney general for just 23 days in 1973. Along with his boss, Atty. Gen. Elliot Richardson, Ruckelshaus quit rather than follow Nixon's "fire Cox" order. He didn't play a lead role that Saturday, but his is a good story nonetheless, told matter-of-factly, even wryly.

That self-effacing tone does nothing to hide the inherent drama in the events. This is a real person, a person you can relate to, who with history breathing down his neck decided what was right and acted on it. Ruckelshaus said it wasn't difficult, but it doesn't exactly read that way. His speech added nuance to Brodner's cartoon, so I blogged about it.

Of course, there are bigger reasons than a well-told tale and a history lesson to replay Watergate. Archibald Cox explained what was at stake in the Saturday Night Massacre: "Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people," he said shortly after he was fired.

We passed the test but, in Ruckelshaus' words, only after "incalculable harm."

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Follow Susan Brenneman on Twitter @susanbrenneman

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U.S. CongressRichard Nixon
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