Dear Mr. Richardson,
I’ve been thinking about you lately. I trust you’re out there (or up there) somewhere keeping tabs on what’s going on in Washington these days. The recent, unceremonious firing of FBI Director James Comey by President Trump has prompted recollection in many quarters of the so-called Saturday Night Massacre, in which you played such a crucial role amidst the 1973 Watergate scandal.
Your actions as U.S. Attorney General in that episode are what prompted me to invite you, on two occasions in the 1990s, to speak to our National Defense University students as part of what we then called our Values, Ethics, and Leadership program. An important part of that program was to expose the future generals, admirals, and senior government executives in our charge to notable role models worthy of emulation in their own professional lives. You were at the top of my list of such role models, based on your almost unparalleled record of distinguished public service, your actions in standing up to President Nixon, your gravitas, and the values I thought you so clearly represented: accountability, character, courage, and integrity.
What impressed me at the very outset, when I first contacted you, was your approachability and your graciousness, two attributes one ordinarily might not expect from someone of your stature. You were then the only person to have occupied four Cabinet-level positions (subsequently joined by George Schultz); you served as Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s and to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea; you received the Presidential Medal of Freedom; you clerked as a fledgling Harvard Law graduate for Judge Learned Hand and Justice Felix Frankfurter; and, notwithstanding your elite heritage, you served as a junior officer in World War II, participated in the D-Day landings, and were awarded a bronze star and two purple hearts. What a sterling record of achievement. Yet you were more than willing to take my calls and accept my invitations to speak to an audience of future government leaders whose attitudes and behaviors you realized only too well could be instrumental in preserving this country and what it presumably stands for.
When President Nixon named you Attorney General after you had served only four months as Secretary of Defense, he clearly recognized that your distinguished record of public service would provide legitimacy to the burgeoning, threatening Watergate investigation, and he no doubt thought having you in place as his man would give him control over what did and didn’t get investigated and uncovered. That came to an end when he ordered you to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was in his own league when it came to gravitas and respectability, and whom you had appointed. Having given Congress assurances in your confirmation hearings that you wouldn’t interfere with the Special Prosecutor, you stood up to the President and tendered your resignation on principle. This is a practice nowhere to be seen these days in the corridors of power (or perhaps we should say the corridors of privilege).
I don’t recall precisely what you said to our students on either of the occasions when you spoke to them. I do remember, though, that you rightly extolled the virtues of public service, not as an obligation but as a privilege that represented the ultimate demonstration of civic virtue and the lifeblood of our system of governance. You underscored the singular importance of the rule of law as a necessary antidote to the rule of men whose human tendencies to use (or misuse) power to serve their own selfish interests at the expense of the public interest are regrettably common. And you challenged them to embrace and live up to the ideas and values embodied in the Constitution they had sworn to support and defend against all enemies, both foreign and domestic. For an audience that was expected, as the price of their service, to defer to civilian authority in matters of state, it was especially crucial to drive home their tacit obligation to speak up to those in power rather than giving in to the protective safety and comfort of blind, unquestioning obedience.
In your letter of resignation to President Nixon, you dealt with the ethical dilemma you faced between loyalty to the President and accountability to the American people by restating your commitment to the Special Prosecutor’s “ultimate responsibility . . . to the American people.” You therefore said: “While I fully respect the reasons that have led you [President Nixon] to conclude that the Special Prosecutor must be discharged, I trust that you understand that I could not in the light of these firm and repeated commitments carry out your direction that this be done. In the circumstances, therefore, I feel that I have no choice but to resign.”
Where are you now, Mr. Richardson, when we need you?
Gregory D. Foster is a professor at the National Defense University.