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Comparing The Saturday Night Massacre To The Present Day Justice Department


When President Trump dismissed his attorney general this week, collective memories of 1973 came flooding back. That's when President Nixon upended the Justice Department firing his attorney general, the deputy attorney general and Archibald Cox - the special prosecutor who was investigating the Watergate scandal. It became known, of course, as the Saturday Night Massacre. Jim Doyle was a special assistant and spokesman for the Watergate prosecutors 45 years ago. He joins us now to maybe disabuse us of some obvious comparisons.

Thanks, Mr. Doyle.

JIM DOYLE: Oh, I'm delighted to be here, Scott.

SIMON: Any similarities or not that you see between 2018 and what you witnessed in 1973?

DOYLE: Well, the president fires the attorney general. The new guy fires the special counsel. History repeats itself. No, the president - President Nixon understood the Constitution. He understood how to govern. He knew he was walking a tightrope. So when a lot of different people in Congress, the public, the courts stood up and showed their courage and they were outraged and started to push back, he backed down. He let the investigation continue. And 10 months later, he resigned. This time it looks like a circus where the clowns are walking a tightrope in slow motion and some people are cheering as if it's a joke. But it's not a joke.

SIMON: Mr. Doyle, I must say you sounded almost wistful speaking about Richard Nixon.

DOYLE: (Laughter) Well, yeah. You know, I've never compared Richard Nixon to Thomas Jefferson before. Never thought I should. But I told someone yesterday that compared to Donald Trump, Richard Nixon is Thomas Jefferson.

SIMON: All right. I'll leave that as your opinion.

DOYLE: (Laughter).

SIMON: Do you believe there's a constitutional crisis afoot right now?

DOYLE: I do. I do. I believe that President Trump doesn't know much about governing the United States or about the U.S. Constitution. He's a good argument for having the president pass the citizenship test.

SIMON: I guess they don't have to take it now - do they? - come to think of it.

DOYLE: No. No.

SIMON: Archibald Cox, for whom you work, made a decision to speak directly to the American people back in 1973 before, you know, he was shown the door. Do you hope special counsel Mueller who has been, I think, famously reluctant to reveal anything about his investigation shows his face and makes a statement now?

DOYLE: No, I don't because the thing about Archie Cox is that he had a very clear mandate from the Senate to take the investigation all the way wherever it led and to report the results to the public. And Bob Mueller has the character and the courage and the skill. But he doesn't have that mandate. So he has to do what he likes to do, which is be quiet and bring in a heavy mallet with all the facts.

SIMON: I understand, Mr. Doyle, that you and other members of the Watergate investigation team still with us - well, you have reunions now and then. And I gather for the first time you had a reunion on the actual anniversary of the Saturday Night Massacre. What are the - my 15 year old now says, you know, what's the tea? What went on there?

DOYLE: Three weeks ago, Saturday night October 20, the Watergate Special Prosecution Force held a reunion. It was the 45th anniversary of the Saturday Night Massacre. None of the senior leaders are any longer with us. But the young idealists who had been in their 20s back when we began, they all showed up in their 60s and 70s as earnest as ever, as idealistic as ever and still full of hope.


SIMON: No, I think someone was talking to you, telling you that, I think, we're running out of time. But did you want to make the final point?

DOYLE: Just that we watched the videotape of Archie Cox. And it was a wonderful thing to see. He did a fabulous job. And thinking about now compared to then, I hope Karl Marx was wrong about this as he was about so many things when he wrote that this history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce.

SIMON: Jim Doyle.

DOYLE: That would not be funny.

SIMON: Jim Doyle, thanks so much.

DOYLE: You're welcome. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.