Wednesday, July 20, 2011

ELLIOT RICHARDSON b. July 20, 1920

July 20, 1920-December 31, 1999


For a time in the seventies, Elliot Richardson was the Republican presidents' go-to-guy. Eventually, under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, he held four Cabinet posts: Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare; Secretary of Defense; Attorney General; and Secretary of Commerce.

This is still, apparently, an all-time record.

Richardson had won two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star in World War II; was graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School; clerked for both Judge Learned Hand and Justice Felix Frankfurter; served as U.S. Attorney in Massachusetts and Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts; then began his service in Washington as Under Secretary of State, the number two, before being appointed to the four Cabinet posts named above. (Details in the New York Times obituary, here.)

As the Pentagon's own official summing up of its eleventh Secretary of Defense put it, "When President Nixon selected Richardson as secretary of defense, the press described him as an excellent manager and administrator, perhaps the best in the cabinet."

But with a tenure of less than four months as SecDef, Richardson did not have much chance to prove his mettle there.

President Nixon moved him to Attorney General, to "handle" Watergate.

And so it happened that, as Richardson himself said, he became known for what he did not do: "I’m the only American I know of who is principally remembered for what he didn’t do—I didn’t fire Archibald Cox" -- as Nixon had ordered him to, when Cox tried to take his investigation of Watergate farther than Nixon wanted.

Thus, the Saturday Night Massacre of October 20, 1973: Richardson resigned; his deputy William Ruckelshaus also resigned rather than fire Cox; Robert Bork did the deed. (Yes, the one who was later "Borked.")

Interesting details of Richardson's memories of the event are to be found here, including the arguments Nixon tried to use to keep him from resigning.

Richardson became known as a "moral arbiter," and did go on to do more good deeds. He did not get elected to the Senate when he tried to in 1984.

He did win the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest American civilian honor, in 1998.

A note about the photograph: According to the Times, Richardson "once told friends that he spent his years at Harvard College mostly drawing cartoons for the Lampoon, the comedy magazine" (which did not stop him from graduating near the top of his class). Here he is, decades later, doodling while being interviewed:

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