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Public Service Exemplars: "A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement": Elliot Richardson

Elliot Lee Richardson was one of only two people to hold four cabinet-level positions in the American national government. (The other man was George Shultz.) Richardson served as the secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), secretary of defense, attorney general, and secretary of commerce. He became a public hero when he resigned as attorney general rather than fire the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, during the “Saturday Night Massacre” in October 1973.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on July 20, 1920, Richardson was a privileged Boston Brahmin. The family could trace its lineage to the early Puritans who settled in New England during the colonial era. During the twentieth century, his father, Edward Peirson Richardson, was a medical doctor and professor at Harvard Medical School.

As a child, Richardson attended the Park School, a prestigious independent day school in Brookline, Massachusetts. He later enrolled in the Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts, a selective preparatory school that served as an unofficial feeder for Harvard University. In keeping with this tradition, Richardson attended Harvard, graduating in 1941.


The United States entered the Second World War at the end of 1941. Like many men of his generation, Richardson volunteered to serve in the armed forces. He became a medic in the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division serving in Europe. Richardson demonstrated his bravery when he served as a platoon leader during the Normandy Beach operation on D-Day, June 6, 1944. After another officer lost his foot from stepping on a mine, Richardson charged across the minefield to assist his wounded colleague. Richardson was also among the first troops to march up Causeway No. 2 leading from Utah Beach on D-Day.


For his gallantry in battle, Richardson earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart with an oak leaf cluster. He remained with the 4th Infantry Division until he was discharged at war’s end in 1945. He was a first lieutenant when he left the service.


Returning to civilian life, Richardson resolved to study law. He entered Harvard Law School, where he excelled. While he was a student, Richardson became editor and president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review.


He enjoyed a storied legal career. Upon graduation, Richardson clerked for a legendary judge, Learned Hand of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He then clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter. After completing his clerkships, Richardson joined the prestigious law firm Ropes, Gray, Best, Coolidge & Rugg (later known as Ropes & Gray). In 1961, he became a partner in the firm.


He might have spent his legal career in private practice, but Richardson heard the call of public service. In 1959, he left the firm to serve as a U.S. attorney for Massachusetts. Two years later, he returned to the firm. He departed permanently in 1964 to serve as the Massachusetts lieutenant governor and later as the state’s attorney general.


Richardson began his federal service in the Nixon administration in January 1969, serving as the undersecretary of state until June 1970. From June 24, 1970, until January 29, 1973, Richardson was the ninth secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). His positions at the State Department and at the helm of HEW were uneventful, at least compared with his experiences in the pivotal year of 1973.


By 1973, the Nixon administration was engulfed in the Watergate scandal. It was becoming increasingly clear that the administration had engaged in multiple acts of malfeasance. Following the arrest of a group of burglars in the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate building in Washington, DC, in June 1972, evidence emerged that the men were gathering intelligence on behalf of the Committee to Reelect the President (CRP, or CREEP). As investigators pursued leads in the case, high-ranking administration officials conspired to cover up the details of the break-in to prevent the burglars from being linked to the White House.


For an administration under siege, Elliott Richardson was a godsend. He was widely viewed as one of the few administration officials with clean hands. He had not been involved in the planning for the break-in, nor was he a conspirator in the subsequent coverup. Having a man inside the administration who enjoyed a reputation for honesty provided political cover for a president who claimed to champion law and order, but who was seen as hopelessly corrupt. For this reason, Nixon shuffled Richardson into several cabinet posts in 1973.

On January 30, 1973, Richardson was confirmed as the secretary of defense. His tenure was short-lived. Four months later, Nixon moved Richardson to the Justice Department. Richardson’s predecessors, Richard Kleindienst and John Mitchell, had been tarnished by the Watergate imbroglio, and the president was anxious to assure his critics, as well as the American people, that he would install a man of integrity as the attorney general.

If ever a man of integrity was needed in the executive branch, he was needed in 1973. Aside from Watergate, a separate scandal was developing around Vice President Spiro Agnew. While serving as county executive of Baltimore as well as governor of Maryland, Agnew had accepted bribes from contractors working for the state. He denied the charges, of course, but Agnew was in a bind. Prosecutors had gathered damning evidence of the vice president’s criminality, and he was facing imminent indictment. Agnew’s lawyers eventually reached a plea deal with prosecutors. He would plead nolo contendere to a single count of income tax evasion for failing to pay taxes on $29,500 of income, i.e., a bribe, that he received in 1967 and resign as vice president. In exchange, Agnew avoided serving jail time. He paid a $10,000 fine and was sentenced to three years of unsupervised probation.


The former vice president remained defiant until the end of life, insisting that a sitting vice president cannot be indicted. Moreover, he claimed that he only resigned his office to save the country from the anguish of a protracted legal battle at a time when the Watergate scandal had already harmed the national interest. Agnew’s most creative allegation was that Attorney General Richardson had vigorously prosecuted him to force Agnew from office and possibly persuade President Nixon that Richardson should be the new vice president. Facing the possibility that Nixon might resign to avoid impeachment, Richardson was lining himself up to ascend into the presidency, according to Agnew. It was a novel argument, but ultimately unpersuasive. Aside from Agnew’s well-known propensity to concoct outlandish tales to excuse his own venality, he presented no concrete evidence to support his allegation. For his part, Richardson denied the charge that he sought the vice presidency. In fact, Richardson did not actively prosecute Agnew. He left that task to the United States attorney for the District of Maryland.


Richardson’s reputation as a man of integrity survived his encounter with Agnew, although the president might have regretted that development in the long run. As Nixon learned to his chagrin, the difficulty with relying on a man of integrity is that integrity can come back to haunt a man who lacks integrity. Richardson politically damaged Nixon during an episode that came to be known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”


By October 1973, the president was becoming increasingly frustrated with the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. The former Harvard law professor was challenging the administration at every turn, and Nixon was furious. Because the special prosecutor reported to the attorney general, and because the attorney general reported to the president, Nixon believed that he had found a solution to his troubles. He ordered the attorney general to fire the special prosecutor to ease the political and legal pressures facing the president.


Richardson considered himself a loyal cabinet member, and he was loath to disobey a direct order from his president. Yet Nixon’s blunt effort to foil the special prosecutor’s Watergate investigation placed the attorney general in an untenable position. During his confirmation hearings, Richardson had assured Congress that he would not interfere with the special prosecutor’s work. If he obeyed the president’s order and fired Cox, Richardson would break his promise to Congress. He resolved not to obey.


After he realized that his attorney general would not fire the special prosecutor, Nixon mulled over his options. The president understood the irony of the situation. He had appointed Richardson as attorney general owing to the man’s squeaky-clean reputation, which provided much-needed political cover. That reputation would now hurt Nixon if he relieved the attorney general of his duties for refusing to obey a presidential order. According to presidential aide Pat Buchanan, Nixon sat in the Oval Office and fretted about his options. “I don't have any choice,” he groused. “I can’t have [Soviet] President Brezhnev watch me be bullied by a member of my cabinet. I’ve got to fire him.”


Nixon need not have worried. Richardson relieved Nixon from the burden of firing him. Rather than choose between obeying the president and defying Congress, Richardson resigned as attorney general on October 20, 1973. It fell to Richardson’s deputy attorney general, William Ruckelshaus, to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus also resigned in protest rather than interfere with the special prosecutor’s work. The third-ranking Justice Department official, Solicitor General Robert Bork, ultimately fired Cox. Bork initially thought that he would resign, too, but Richardson worried that additional resignations would irreparably harm the Justice Department. He prevailed upon Bork to stay and obey Nixon’s order.


It was an action that dogged Bork for the remainder of his professional life. When President Reagan nominated Bork for a seat in the United States Supreme Court years later, Senate Democrats defeated his candidacy owing to his willingness to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, among other things. The solicitor general was widely viewed as an unprincipled agent of a corrupt administration, but Bork believed that he had performed his duty as a faithful Justice Department official.

Nixon emerged from the “Saturday Night Massacre” in a weakened position, which was incredible considering how weak had already been. If he thought that firing the special prosecutor would alleviate his woes, he was sadly mistaken. A new special prosecutor, Texas lawyer Leon Jaworski, eventually took Cox’s place. Jaworski proved to be just as tenacious as his predecessor had been.


Elliot Richardson emerged from the episode with his stellar reputation enhanced. Many Americans viewed him as a hero, a champion of democratic values who refused to obey the unconscionable orders of a lawless, out-of-control president. Although Richardson was self-effacing and not inclined to extoll his own virtues, he surely recognized that his public persona would serve him well in the future. In 1974, he accepted the "Award for Greatest Public Service by an Elected or Appointed Official," an annual prize awarded by the Jefferson Awards Foundation to persons “who do extraordinary things without expectation of recognition.”


With his favorable press as a man of honor and integrity, Richardson naturally became a possible presidential contender. Gerald R. Ford, the man who became vice president following Agnew’s resignation and then, 10 months later, became president when Nixon resigned in August 1974, understood Richardson’s appeal. Although he was the incumbent, Ford knew that Richardson could present political problems if he threw his hat into the presidential ring. Ford had pardoned Nixon in September 1974, and the pardon had been politically unpopular. If Richardson challenged Ford for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, it could be politically disastrous for the new president.


In 1975, Ford appointed Richardson the Ambassador to the Court of St. James, which meant that the potential rival would be absent in England for much of the year leading up to the presidential primaries. In effect, the appointment eliminated Richardson from presidential politics in the 1976 election. Richardson understood this point, but he was unperturbed. He told reporters that he would not run for the presidency if Ford chose to run. Because Ford was a candidate, Elliot Richardson was out of the game. He later served as Ford’s commerce secretary from February 1976 until the end of the administration on January 20, 1977.


Richardson’s public service did not end with the advent of a Democratic administration. From 1977 until 1980, Richardson was Democratic president Jimmy Carter’s ambassador-at-large and special representative to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and head of the United States delegation to the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea.


Richardson spent the rest of his career in the private sector, although he occasionally reappeared in the public sphere. In 1984, he sought the Republican nomination for a United States Senate seat in Massachusetts after the incumbent, Paul Tsongas, announced his retirement. Owing to his public stature, Richardson initially seemed to be the likely nominee. Alas, he proved to be a better fit for appointed office than for the rough-and-tumble world of electoral politics. A conservative Republican businessman, Ray Shamie, defeated Richardson in the primary. Shamie went on to lose the general election to the Democratic nominee, John F. Kerry .


Richardson remained a figure of gravitas until the end of his life. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was associated with the Washington, DC, office of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, a prominent New York law firm that dated its origins to the 1860s. He also served as an attorney for Inslaw, Inc., a software firm best known for its claim that the United States Department of Justice had pirated its software.


In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Richardson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. The president commented on Richardson’s “versatile, indefatigable career” as a public servant. “He gave courageous and deeply moral service to our nation…where, on one difficult Saturday night, he saved the nation from a constitutional crisis with his courage and moral clarity,” Clinton told a crowd of well-wishers. “No public servant is more beloved by those who have served [with] him. No public servant has shown greater respect for the Constitution he has served.”



Elliot Richardson died of a cerebral hemorrhage on New Year’s Eve in 1999. He was 79 years old. Hailed as a “Watergate martyr” for his role in the Saturday Night Massacre, he was best known for his 1973 resignation. Yet Richardson’s career encompassed far more than this one action. As he confessed in a 1996 book, Reflections of a Radical Moderate, “I am a moderate—a radical moderate. I believe profoundly in the ultimate value of human dignity and equality. I therefore believe as well in such essential contributions to these ends as fairness, tolerance, and mutual respect.”




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