On Saturday, Oct. 21, 1973, then-President Richard Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was investigating events surrounding the break-in at the Watergate Hotel. Richardson refused, and Nixon fired him.
Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. He, too, refused and was fired.
Finally, Nixon turned to Solicitor General Robert Bork, who was next in line to become acting attorney general, and he fired Cox. Nixon then abolished the office of the special prosecutor.
It is unimaginable that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales ever would have shown the independence or personal character that Richardson and Ruckelshaus did in defying the president three decades ago in what became known as the "Saturday night massacre." That lack of independence on Gonzales' part, the overwhelming sense that he serves the president first and the interests of the American people second, figures significantly in the relief over Gonzales' belated resignation.
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Gonzales reportedly told the president Friday that he intended to resign, effective in September. Bush invited Gonzales to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Sunday as a parting gesture and accepted -- reluctantly, he said -- the attorney general's resignation.
The resignation comes as something of a surprise. Gonzales has had ample opportunities to step down and spare the president further embarrassment. It had appeared, however, that Gonzales continued to enjoy the president's full support and was prepared to weather the mounting criticism for the rest of Bush's term in office.
The resignation might have been simply a matter of timing. Congress is on vacation, and much of the public is focussed on the upcoming Labor Day weekend. Gonzales no doubt hopes he can quietly slink away.
But that may be difficult. Many questions remain unanswered regarding the firing of eight federal prosecutors, and a Democratic Congress is likely to continue to pursue the matter. Gonzales' performance also is sure to come up during congressional grilling of his appointed successor.
That performance has been, at best, questionable from the time he was White House counsel through his tenure as attorney general. As counsel, Gonzales worked to reauthorize a secret domestic spying program over the objection of the Justice Department.
In a bizarre encounter in 2004, Gonzales and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card visited a seriously ill Attorney General John Ashcroft while he was hospitalized in intensive care. Gonzales and Card tried to persuade Ashcroft to approve the program, but, to his credit, he refused. The White House subsequently renewed the program without the approval of the Justice Department.
More damning, however, was Gonzales' involvement as attorney general in the firing of eight federal prosecutors. Thousands of documents released by the Justice Department show an organized White House scheme in 2004 to replace U.S. attorneys for partisan reasons.
Gonzales' testimony at congressional hearings on this matter has consisted largely of political amnesia. Often, when he did offer a concrete answer, it was contradicted by other witnesses, prompting some lawmakers to call for Gonzales to be indicted for perjury.
Gonzales had lost the confidence not only of congressional Democrats but also members of his own party, and his resignation was long overdue. We hope the president will nominate someone to succeed him who, unlike Gonzales, has the credibility and stature to maintain a politically independent and ethical Justice Department.
Resignation of embattled attorney general is long overdue.
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