Richardson: Man of principle, integrity who defied Nixon

January 10, 2000|By Tim Baker

ELLIOT Richardson died on New Year's Eve, leaving behind a reputation engraved in marble. Honor, integrity, courage, intelligence, excellence. These were the hallmarks of his service to our country, from the Bronze Star he won on the Normandy beaches in 1944 to the four Cabinet posts he held with such distinction in the 1970s.

One moment, however, enshrined his enduring image in our national memory. On Oct. 20, 1973, he resigned as attorney general, refusing to execute President Nixon's order to fire Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor. The resulting "Saturday Night Massacre" ignited a firestorm that thwarted Nixon's efforts to subvert the processes of justice.

Mr. Richardson's rectitude in that crisis and his austerely handsome Brahmin features etched in the public mind an impression of a stiff and aloof statue. But those of us who were privileged to work with him in the prosecution of former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew saw the extraordinary human being behind that intimidating exterior.

When we first met him in the summer of 1973, he had just become attorney general. Each day's headlines brought new revelations of wrongdoing in the White House. Amidst that turmoil, four young federal prosecutors from Baltimore drove over to the Justice Department and, with no warning, told our new boss that we had built a strong criminal kickback case against the vice president.

He must have wondered if we wouldn't prove as troublesome as our proposed prosecution. We were brash, wary that the department bureaucrats would try to steal our investigation from us, and suspicious that the White House would try to manipulate the case to protect Nixon. Nonetheless, Mr. Richardson treated us in such a way that he won our respect, esteem and even affection. He included us in his war councils, sought out our opinions and responded on the merits of our earnest arguments.

I'm sure we tried his patience, but he remained the warm, witty, and even somewhat eccentric man behind his forbidding facade.

During meetings, Mr. Richardson doodled. Endlessly. Continually. With blue felt-tip pens. Elaborate, intricate, Byzantine designs which we eagerly snitched from his pads and retrieved from his wastebaskets. When he tired of doodling, he would circle the magnificent conference room and try (with little success) to shoot wads of paper like basketballs into an ornate china bowl in the center of the long table -- all the while managing the continuing debates that raged among his seated subordinates.

Then he would stop to make a point or tell us some sardonic vignette from his latest dealings with the White House, of which he seemed as leery as we were. He gave us his trust, and in return we gave him not only our best efforts but also our loyalty.

Once near the end, before I at least had come to see the wisdom of the plea bargain he would eventually accept from Agnew, some of us defiantly told him we might resign and go to the press in protest. Mr. Richardson responded calmly, but with a sudden steeliness, that he was going to do what he thought was best for the country and that we should do the same.

In that moment I realized that I simply could not do anything that might undermine this man, even when I disagreed with him.

In exchange for the plea agreement, Agnew resigned, sparing the nation from having the president and vice president under impeachment proceedings simultaneously.

In the late 1980s, I was fortunate enough to work with Mr. Richardson again, representing a small high-tech company in Maryland. He was still magnificent.

Dealing with one problem, I remember him telling our client "how much simpler and easier it is just to do what's right." Around that time, he asked me to start calling him "Elliot," instead of "Mr. Richardson." I tried for a while, but as I looked out across the desert of the American political landscape, I didn't see any heroes. So I decided to hang on to one I'd found and not to let the glow of my admiration slip away on easy informality. In fact, to his amusement, I went back to calling him "Mr. Attorney General."

Great leaders, I learned in the summer of 1973, do more than make wise decisions. They somehow inspire us to perform beyond our abilities and live up to our own highest ideals.

Mr. Richardson had that ability, and when we consider his other qualities as well -- intelligence, courage and integrity -- his death must lead us to a haunting question: How and why did we as a polity and a people succeed in depriving ourselves of this remarkable man's further services to our country? He would never return to a major Cabinet post. Never sit on the Supreme Court. Never again guide us through a crisis.

The answer to how that happened lies in the coarse arena of politics, and he himself knew when he resigned that honor would be repaid with banishment.

But his sacrifice also carries us into a mysterious realm beyond historical explanation. Perhaps at a low point in our public morality, we as a nation needed to see then -- as we would do well to remember now -- one shining example of a man of principle in action.

Tim Baker was an assistant U.S. attorney from 1971 to 1974 and the U.S. Attorney for Maryland from 1978-1981.

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