In 1973, then-President Richard Nixon was embroiled in scandal. The Washington Post published a series of articles linking Nixon to the Watergate scandal, Nixon began a campaign to cover-up his involvement in the event, and a federal investigation of Nixon and his administration was heating up. It culminated in a mass firing, a near-impeachment, and one of the biggest scandals in US history. It all came to a head on October 20, 1973 during what many now call the Saturday Night Massacre.
The Saturday Night Massacre, orchestrated by Nixon, accelerated the Watergate scandal into a full-blown constitutional crisis, and laid the groundwork for Nixon's subsequent resignation six months later. Ultimately, after the fallout from the Saturday Night Massacre played out, the House of Representatives moved to impeach Nixon before he formally resigned on August 9, 1974 - the only president ever to do so.
What Was The Saturday Night Massacre?
The Saturday Night Massacre was a result of the investigation into Watergate and Nixon's possible involvement. On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested in the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington's Watergate Hotel. An investigation into the burglary determined some of these conspirators had direct ties to the Nixon White House and Nixon's re-election campaign.
This led to a full-blown investigation of the White House. Officials began speculating White House staff - and possibly Nixon himself - were involved in the burglary and the cover up. In February 1973, the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities was created, focused primarily on the Watergate affair.
Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox - the man in charge of investigating Watergate - discovered Nixon taped himself while inside the Oval Office. Cox subpoenaed nine taped conversations Nixon had with senior level advisors. He knew it would either confirm the President's assertion he was unaware of anything to do with the Watergate burglary; or the much-believed theory he was involved in obstruction of justice. Nixon refused and ordered Cox be fired on Saturday, October 20, 1973.
Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus refused and resigned in protest the same day. It added to the air of desperation and isolation that was rapidly descending upon the Nixon White House, and the press dubbed it The Saturday Night Massacre.
It's Regarded As One Of The Most Controversial Moments In The Watergate Scandal
Many regard the Saturday Night Massacre as one of the most controversial and life-altering moments for the Watergate scandal and Nixon, respectively. And its legacy lived long after Cox was fired. The president's actions - coupled with the intense media coverage surrounding the issue - changed not only American politics but American journalism as well. Many argued it made the media and the American people much more skeptical of presidential powers.
It also is regarded as a textbook example of abuse of power. Nixon's attempt to shut down Cox by firing him and shutting down his office was considered an extreme overreach by many. A large portion of Americans believed Nixon willfully ignored of the spirit of constitution to save his own skin.
Discovery Of The Watergate Tapes Stunned The Nation
In May 1973, nationally televised hearings conducted by the Senate Committee investigating the Watergate affair began. These hearings became must-see TV for the American people and the national press corps, as they dug deeply into the machinations and personalities of high profile individuals involved in the Nixon administration. On July 13, 1973, former White House staff member and assistant to the president Alexander Butterfield admitted a White House taping system existed that recorded all of President Nixon's conversations regarding Watergate.
Butterfield's public testimony admitting the existence of such a taping system electrified the proceedings and stunned the nation. Although presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson had similar systems, the revelation a president would secretly tape all of his conversations made Nixon seem paranoid and secretive. Within a week, the president would personally order the taping system be shut down.
Public Reaction Was Swift And Extremely Negative
Public reaction to the Saturday Night Massacre was fast and furious. Congress and the White House received over a 50,000 telegrams demanding either the President's resignation or impeachment and protests erupted outside. A public opinion poll taken shortly after the incident favored impeachment. Archibald Cox summed up the feelings of the Special Prosecutor's Office, the Congress, and the nation in a statement:
“Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.”
More importantly, this incident prompted the House Judiciary Committee to begin the lengthy official process of impeachment.