Twenty-two years ago, I sat in President Gerald Ford’s home in California for an hour-long interview about his presidency. Twenty-two years before that, he had been nominated, but not yet confirmed as vice president, when the infamous events known as the Saturday Night Massacre took place. That was when Richard Nixon ordered the firing of a special prosecutor assigned to investigate Watergate. The attorney general and his deputy refused, and resigned.
Eventually the third-ranking man, Solicitor General Robert Bork, agreed to fire the prosecutor, Archibald Cox. This was rightly seen as an enormous constitutional crisis.
Among other things, it set in motion the process that led to Ford becoming President less than 10 months later. Ford, who had grown up in a Grand Rapids where a man’s word was his bond, found it hard to believe the President could possibly be a crook.
I remember Ford told me he thought at the time the firing was politically stupid, and wondered why Nixon just didn’t release the proof of his innocence.
It was, we all came to learn, because he was guilty. Everyone was tainted by Watergate, the nation perhaps most of all. We learned that a president could lie and obstruct justice.
Robert Bork’s willingness to do Nixon’s bidding was a factor in his rejection by the Senate years later for the U.S. Supreme Court. Ford, the only man from Michigan ever to reach the White House, was defeated when he tried to get elected on his own.
I didn’t ask Ford if he thought we’d ever again see a President fire a law enforcement official for conducting a legitimate investigation into his administration’s activities.
Asking him that would have been an insult to both our intelligences. Nobody thought that could ever happen again. If there was one lesson from the Saturday Night Massacre, it was that firing someone investigating you sends an immediate signal to the world that you are guilty.
Well, now it has happened again. President Trump has fired FBI director James Comey, clearly for investigating his administration’s ties to Russia. History never repeats exactly, but as Stephen King observed in his magnificent time-travel novel about the Kennedy assassination, the past “harmonizes.” Those who pay attention to history may sometimes be able to avoid making similar mistakes. We live in a different world from the one in which Richard Nixon was president. Things happen much more rapidly, thanks in part to the constant news cycle.
Americans are also far harder to shock, on every level. Neither Ford nor Nixon could have imagined the Access Hollywood videotape, or that the man in it could have been elected president. Vietnam and Watergate made us far more cynical about government.
Politics is more ideological these days, and President Trump’s party controls both houses of Congress. Yet the firing of the FBI director is a sea change, and puts the nation in a place the New York Times today says is “even more perilous” than after the Saturday Massacre almost 44 years ago. When he took the oath of office when Nixon finally resigned, Gerald Ford said “Our Constitution works. Our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men.”
That was true then. In coming weeks, we may find out if it is still.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.