Democracy & Government

Their Elliot Richardson Moment

Esper and Miley: Too Little, Too Late

Their Elliot Richardson Moment

If a poet or playwright had created that day in D.C., they would have had nature warn us of the tragedy about to unfold — perhaps thunderclaps and lightning and pounding rain, or even horses whinnying in their stalls, spooked by a gathering storm. But weather did us no such favor on that cool, clear Saturday in October 1973. The only storm that raged that day raged in the head of the madman in the White House.

Still, unhinged as he was, Richard Nixon must have found some measure of comfort as he waited in the Oval Office for his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to arrive. After all, Richardson was a Nixon loyalist and beneficiary of the president’s political largesse: he had appointed him to three cabinet-level posts, including secretary of defense. Surely Richardson would fire Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor whose investigation had homed in perilously close to the president and the White House tapes.

Then again, Nixon never was much of a judge of character: Richardson’s devotion to his country ran deeper than his devotion to the president, indeed, as deep as his roots, which he could trace to the first settlers on Massachusetts’ shores. Without doubt, he was much more of a man than his blueblood might indicate, having spilled it at Normandy, a platoon leader who risked his life to save the life of a soldier with his foot blown off, who distinguished himself in combat across the European theater and left the war with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart with an Oak Leaf Cluster, each signaling his uncommon courage.

He was also a man of his word, and, having promised Congress that he would not fire Cox for anything short of dereliction of duty, he turned the president down flat and resigned. The next in line, a former Army drill sergeant and deputy attorney general, William Ruckelshaus, also refused and resigned. Which left it to the former marine and Solicitor General Robert Bork to fire Cox, which he did, staying on only because Richardson and Ruckelshaus convinced him not to quit.

That exercise of ill-advised power — the Saturday Night Massacre — led to the appointment of another Nixon supporter, Leon Jaworski, as special prosecutor. But Leon Jaworski was better known as Colonel Jaworski, who tried and convicted Nazis in Germany following WWII, was an unbending believer in bringing criminals to justice, and who, within months, convinced the Supreme Court to enforce the subpoena for Nixon’s tapes.

Give Nixon his due: even he, who violated the law, knew the law, and turned over the tapes, well-aware that they would end his presidency. In the days following his resignation, his successor, Gerald Ford, captured the moment for all of us when he said, “Our long national nightmare is over.” I think often of those words now and wonder if we will ever hear such words again.

Which brings us to Sunday night, May 31, 2020, another calm day in D.C. that offered no hint of the rough beast howling in the West Wing like Lear in the storm, plotting against the terrorists outside his gates, commanding Mark Esper, his secretary of defense, to unleash the armed might of America…on American citizens.

Esper, a highly decorated West Point graduate and veteran of the Gulf War, carried out the order, leaving us to watch his handiwork, jaws agape, disbelieving, as chemical agents were fired on protestors and dissolved into noxious clouds lit up with flash bangs that came from God knows whose sullied hands. The peaceful crowd did disburse, angry and astonished and afraid, while not far away, in D.C.’s Chinatown, a Black Hawk piloted by some ciphered soul slowly descended and hovered over marchers, turned dusk to dark, while the force of its rotors tore limbs from trees and, as in that famous song by Leadbelly about a long-ago hurricane, blew the people all away.

What remained now was for Trump’s Attorney General William Barr to survey the war zone and, one imagines, signal the “all clear” to General Mark Milley, whose baggy battle fatigues conveyed the fulsome support of the armed forces he commanded for the military might that had been on display. Then Milley and a cadre of lemmings fell in behind the president as he slouched toward the boarded-up church, there to display a Bible like a pitchman selling snake oil — a pitchman who had no more taken the medicine he held aloft than Trump had read the Bible he held in his hand. Then they took a picture that will outlive every man, woman and child alive today.

The next day, Esper and Milley each repented, but with military vehicles roaring through Washington like May Day in Moscow and a phalanx of black-masked mercenaries standing on the steps with assault rifles locked and loaded as the sad figure behind them seemed to grow even more melancholy, it was too late. Their long service to this nation had evaporated like the thick clouds of gas and the sparks from flash bangs and the roar of the Black Hawk descending slowly on Americans below.

Their Elliot Richardson moment had passed.

David Berg

David Berg is a New York trial lawyer and author of the memoir, Run Brother Run (Scribner, 2013).