President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey last week generated comparisons to President Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre.”  Nixon ordered the firing of independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox, precipitating the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus who both refused to do so. The job of firing Cox then fell to Solicitor General Robert Bork who also opposed firing Cox, but believed it was within the President’s constitutional authority to do so, and terminated the special prosecutor.

Just as Trump’s advisors seemed surprised at the reaction of the press to the firing, so, too, Nixon was caught off guard. Nixon recounts in his memoirs, “The television networks broke into their regular programming with breathless, almost hysterical, bulletins. Commentators and correspondents talked in apocalyptic terms and painted the night’s events in terms of an administration coup aimed at suppressing opposition… I was taken by surprise by the ferocious intensity of the reaction that actually occurred. For the first time I recognized the depth of the impact Watergate had been having on America; I suddenly realized how deeply its acid had eaten into the nation’s grain. As I learned of the almost hysterical reactions of otherwise sensible and responsible people to this Saturday night’s events, I realized how few people were able to see things from my perspective, how badly frayed the nerves of the American public had become. To the extent that I had not been aware of this situation, my actions were the result of serious miscalculation. But to the extent that it was simply intolerable to continue with Cox as Special Prosecutor, I felt I had no other option than to act as I did.”

The Saturday Night Massacre almost didn’t happen. It was nearly averted because of the respect many had for Mississippi Senator John C. Stennis.

Nixon considered Stennis one of his “strongest and most dependable supporters in foreign affairs.” When he ordered the secret bombings of North Vietnamese forces in Cambodia, Stennis was one of two members of Congress he informed. Stennis worked closely with Nixon, both due to his role as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, and because of personal rapport. After Stennis was shot in a robbery in January 1973, Nixon made an unannounced and unscheduled drop in to visit with him during his recovery.

In April of 1973 - just six months prior to the firing of Cox - Nixon and Stennis flew together on Air Force One to Mississippi to dedicate the John C. Stennis Training Center at Meridian. Alone in the President’s cabin, writes Nixon, Stennis gave him advice: “The time is now. We say down in our country that the rain falls on the just and the unjust. Time is running out.”

Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s chief-of-staff, described in his own diary that Nixon shared that advice to his advisors with alarm: “[The President] feels time is running out…if the rain falls on people, they’ve got to go, whether they’re just or not.” Three days later, after returning from Mississippi, Nixon announced the resignation of Haldeman and John Ehrlichman during his first televised address about Watergate.

In September of 1973, with Cox demanding the Nixon Administration turn over taped conversations involving the President and his advisors, and the White House refusing to on the grounds of executive privilege, a plan was devised.  “The Stennis Compromise” would have the White House prepare summaries of the tapes. Stennis would listen to the tapes and review the summaries to determine whether they were accurate and inclusive of the information which Cox would want. Stennis also had security clearance and context to know if matters of non-applicable national security were rightfully redacted.

Nixon recalls, “Stennis was a Democrat, the Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Standards and Conduct, a former judge, and one of the few men in Congress respected by members of both parties for his fairness and integrity.” Nixon believed the summaries “would not compromise the critical question of precedent” involving executive privilege.

Stennis agreed. The Senate Watergate Committee Chairman Sam Ervin and Vice Chairman Howard Baker agreed.  Attorney General Richardson, who suggested the plan as an alternative to firing Cox, was on board. Nixon’s new chief-of-staff Alexander Haig notified the staff, the Cabinet and Vice President Gerald Ford of the plan, and a statement from the President announcing the Stennis Compromise was released on Friday, October 19, 1973. The public reaction was positive; Congress was receptive.  Cox rejected it.

Saturday morning Cox called a press conference and said he would continue to seek access to the tapes and suggested no one but his immediate supervisor, the Attorney General, could give him instructions otherwise. That evening the Attorney General resigned as did the Deputy Attorney General, and Cox was fired. The Stennis Compromise could have avoided it all.





Brian Perry is a columnist for the Madison County Journal and a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. Reach him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.