It took about a nanosecond for the news of James Comey’s firing to trigger millions of neurons in the brains of the older members of the political community. From 44 years ago came memories of one of the most dramatic and consequential dramas ever to unfold in Washington, filed forever under the memorable label of the Saturday Night Massacre.
Then, as now, a President fired the official responsible for investigating potential wrongdoing among his team. Then, as now, the act raised immediate suspicions about just how “independent’ any such investigation could be.
But that’s where the parallels stop. All those Trump critics ready to grave-dance on his presidency, comparing Trump’s first four months to Nixon’s weakened and doomed second term, should check themselves. Back in 1973, the political stars were aligned in perfect harmony against the sitting President. Today the contrast couldn’t be sharper.
By the fall of 1973, President Richard Nixon was facing incoming fire from a variety of fronts. The Senate, in Democratic hands, had held hearings on the Watergate break-in the previous spring, tracing the crime and the subsequent cover-up efforts to the highest reaches of the White House. Those revelations had already forced Nixon to fire his two top aides, Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, as well as Attorney General Richard Kleindienst. They had also forced him to accept the appointment of a special prosecutor to probe possible criminal acts. And those same hearings had revealed the existence of a surreptitious White House taping system, which held the possibility of definitively establishing guilt or innocence.
Nixon’s troubles went even further than that. To create an image of transparency, Nixon had named as Attorney General Elliot Richardson—a Boston Brahmin (Harvard College, Harvard Law School) who had served in two cabinet posts before being moved to the Justice Department. Richardson in turn named as Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, another Harvard and Harvard Law graduate, who had close political ties to the Kennedys. In short, neither the Attorney General nor his Special Prosecutor had any political or personal loyalties to Nixon. So Cox had no qualms about demanding that Nixon turn the tapes over to him.
The clash climaxed on October 20, when Nixon demanded that Richardson fire Cox. He refused; so did his deputy, William Ruckleshaus, It was left to a sub-cabinet member, Robert Bork (the future rejected Supreme Court nominee), to fire Cox and deliver Nixon’s command that the office of special prosecutor be closed.
That Saturday night, the broadcast networks (there was no 24/7 cable news yet) turned their airtime over to breathless news reports of a “firestorm” and a “constitutional crisis.” The pushback was so strong that Nixon was forced to name a new special prosecutor—a Texas lawyer named Leon Jaworski—who inherited a staff more than eager to unearth whatever damaging information on the president and his team they could find. Like a slow-motion train wreck, the story played out over the next 10 months, until a unanimous Supreme Court ordered Nixon to hand over the tapes. Their contents proved a cover-up that led straight to the Oval Office. A few days after the court decision, Nixon resigned.
You don’t have to get very deep into that story to see where the parallels end. Today, both houses of Congress are in Republican hands, and to judge by the reaction so far from Capitol Hill, the Republican appetite for exposing potential wrongdoing on the part of President Trump is… meager. Monday’s hearings that featured Sally Yates were treated by the Republican committee members as an occasion to rend their garments over leaks, rather than asking why the White House seemed indifferent to the possibility of its national security advisor being a blackmail risk.
And rather than a fiercely independent outsider to the administration, Trump’s Attorney General was an actual member of his campaign—Jeff Sessions, the first (and for a while the only) Republican Senator to back Trump’s bid for the GOP nomination. That’s about as clear a contrast to the Nixon-Richardson relationship as possible.
Further, the news media in 1973 were all but monolithic in their hostility to Nixon—a hostility that, given the evidence of political malfeasance, was well-earned. There was no FOX News network, no Breitbart, no Sinclair Broadcasting to rally opinion behind the beleaguered President. Today, there are plenty of venues in which James Comey will be painted as a feckless bureaucrat whose termination was more than justified by his maneuverings during around the Clinton e-mail story—an argument many Democrats were making until a few hours ago.
There may well emerge a coterie of Republican senators who will keep the concerns about Russian election meddling alive, and raise questions about who in the Justice Department will have the standing to look into what really happened to our democracy in 2016 (although Maine’s Senator Susan Collins, one of the more independent of Republicans, his given full backing to the firing). What’s clear, however, is that looking at the Comey firing through the lens of the “Saturday Night Massacre” will produce a deeply distorted view of the possibilities, and the moment we’re in. In terms of the political climate, the position of the president, and the alignment of stars in Washington, this isn’t apples and oranges—it’s apples and bowling balls.