No ‘Saturday Night Massacre;’ dangerous nonetheless

When I walked into the office Wednesday morning, a young colleague posed a question variants of which have been much in the air this week.

“I wasn’t born when Watergate happened,” he said. “Is this what it felt like?”

The comparison between President Donald Trump’s sacking of FBI Director James Comey and Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” to oust a special prosecutor has been feverishly debated in the past few days. There’s no question it evokes memories for those of us around for that episode.

We are, I might point out, a minority. Like my colleague, roughly six out of 10 people in this country today had not been born in 1973. Barely a third of the population would have been old enough to have a distinct memory of the events of Oct. 20, 1973. But clearly the events achieved such notoriety that the phrase Saturday Night Massacre needs little or no explaining even to those born decades after.

My wife, Pat, and I were watching television in our Raleigh apartment, enjoying that fall’s a golden block of must-see Saturday night programs — “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H, “Mary Tyler Moore.” I don’t remember which was airing when newscasters broke in with bulletins on the unfolding drama in Washington, but news supplanted the rest of the evening’s programming on all three networks (yes, that’s all there were; no wall-to-wall cable news).

I was working for an afternoon newspaper with no Sunday edition, so I was in the unfamiliar position of simply watching with deep interest and no immediate journalistic obligations. And what if felt like was — ominous, unsettling, disorienting, head-spinning. It felt like an unfolding constitutional crisis, another in a series of shocks in an age that had them in quick succession.

Tuesday evening, as the news of Comey’s firing unfolded, felt nothing like that. To be clear, it was and remains an ominous development, suggesting strongly that, like Nixon, Trump must fear where an investigation was heading. But the context is significantly different.

“All those critics of Donald Trump ready to grave-dance on his presidency, comparing Trump’s first four months to President Richard Nixon’s weakened and doomed second term, should check themselves,” Jeff Greenfield wrote last week in Politico. “Back in 1973, the political stars were aligned in perfect harmony against the sitting president. Today the contrast couldn’t be sharper.”

Washington’s establishment was turning against Nixon in droves, and a Democratic-controlled Congress was avidly pursuing Watergate investigations. An attorney general stood up to Nixon’s demand to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox — in fact, first Elliot Richardson and then his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, resigned rather than fire Cox. Trump’s attorney general, solid ally Jeff Sessions, was in full accord with dumping Comey.

Interestingly, Jeffrey Frank, writing in The New Yorker, sees the contrast between October 1973 and May 2017 darkly.

“The situation today is far more problematic and dangerous than the one facing the nation forty-four years ago,” Frank wrote. “Nixon, for all his misdeeds, understood the Presidency, and the demands of his job. He was fascinated by history, and the geopolitics of the world, and understood both. In foreign policy, if he didn’t always act wisely, he acted consistently.”

The thought that anyone could make us look back with almost fond nostalgia on Richard Nixon would have seemed inconceivable a few months ago. Donald Trump, it seems, has made much that once seemed inconceivable frighteningly real.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.