WSW: "One Of The Heroes Of A Traumatic Political Event"

Jun 22, 2017

President Clinton presents Elliot Richardson with a Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony at the White House Thursday Jan. 15, 1998. Richardson received the award for his public career which included Health Secretary and Attorney General. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)
Credit Dennis Cook / The Associated Press

During a graduate writing course at Western Michigan University, students were asked what they would do if they didn’t have to work, Tom Vance’s answer was “write a biography of Elliot Richardson.” 

Vance’s book Elliot Richardson, the Virtue of Politics was originally published in 2000. Vance says it’s not a comprehensive biography, but more of a book for young adults. He says Richardson saw a draft of the book shortly before he died in 1999. Vance says he tried to be objective, but is a fan of Richardson’s public service, including his time as Attorney General.

45 years ago this summer, a break in at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel started the chain of events that led to Richard Nixon resigning the Presidency in 1974. At the time, Richardson was Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. He would serve as Secretary of Defense, then Richardson became Attorney General where the Watergate investigation would fall under his department.

While working as a reporter at the Western Herald, Vance covered an event in Benton Harbor in 1976, where Richardson was speaking for Republican candidates. Vance was a Western student at the time, and a fan of the movie All the President’s Men about the Watergate scandal. Vance got to meet Richardson again years later , he says Richardson is clearly “one of the heroes of a traumatic political event.”

Vance says Richardson’s career was dedicated to public service, and he wanted to do great things, but didn’t want to do what was necessary to do those things. Vance says that’s because Richardson always remembered the advice he heard from serving as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. “Enjoy the job you’re doing at the time for the sake of that job.” 

"Richardson had to get Agnew to resign, so he could be replaced by a new Vice President so there would be someone in charge when Nixon might be forced out of office.This was Richardson's summer of 1973."

Richardson resisted requests from President Nixon to become Attorney General. Vance said Richardson only agreed to take the job, after he was convinced that Nixon was innocent of any wrongdoing in Watergate. But Vance says first Richardson had to deal with Vice President Spiro Agnew who had been involved with kickbacks, bribes and tax evasion which started as governor of Maryland and that continued during his time as Vice President. Vance says it was important for Richardson to get Agnew to resign to make sure someone else was ready to become president in case Nixon had to resign over Watergate. Vance says “This was Richardson’s summer of 1973.”

The Special Prosecutor appointed to investigate Watergate, Archibald Cox was Richardson’s law professor at Harvard. Vance says they weren’t friends, but had remained in touch. He says there was not a long list of people who wanted to become special prosecutor. Cox was a Democrat, which bothered Nixon. Vance says as the summer of 1973 progressed tension grew, and that frustrated Richardson because Nixon had done much for him. In October of 1973, President Nixon told Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused and resigned. His Deputy William Ruckelshaus also resigned. It became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” Vance says public support was with Richardson and Cox. He says three-million telegrams (back when people sent telegrams) of support were received. 

"I think our system is built to handle whatever we throw at it."

Asked about any parallels between Watergate and the current investigation into the Trump administration and Russian influence in the 2016 election, Vance says a couple stand out. He says there was a lot of paranoia in the Nixon White House. Vance says the current administration might also feel as though they are under siege. Attacking the press was a hallmark of the Nixon administration, although Vance says the press ended up being the good guys. But Richardson said the system worked during Watergate. Vance says our system of government "is built to handle whatever we throw out at it." But having an Elliot Richardson in the right place helps.