Richardson, Elliot Lee

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Elliot Lee Richardson had a distinguished career in government service, including holding four different cabinet positions—the first person in U.S. history to do so. He was best known, however, for his brief tenure as U.S. attorney general under President richard m. nixon. Richardson served from May 25, 1973, to October 20, 1973,

during the unfolding of the watergate scandal. He resigned the office during the "Saturday Night Massacre" rather than fire the special Watergate prosecutor as Nixon had directed.

Richardson was born on July 20, 1920, in Boston, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard University in 1941 and then served in the U.S. Army during world war ii. Following the war, he attended Harvard Law School, where he was the president of the Harvard Law Review. After graduation in 1947, he served as law clerk for Judge learned hand of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In 1948, he went to Washington, D.C., to clerk for Justice felix frankfurter at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Richardson returned to Boston in 1949 to practice law, but by 1953 he was back in Washington, serving as an assistant to Senator Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts. He left for Boston and private practice again in 1954 but was summoned by President dwight d. eisenhower in 1957 to be assistant secretary of health, education, and welfare. In 1958 Richardson served as acting secretary of the department for four months. He was appointed as U.S. attorney for Massachusetts in 1959, serving until 1961, when he became special assistant attorney general.

In 1964, Richardson turned to the political arena and was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. In 1966, he was elected attorney general of the state. He left state government in 1969 when President Nixon appointed him under secretary of state. In June 1970, Nixon named Richardson to be secretary of health, education, and welfare, a position he held until the end of Nixon's first term. Following a cabinet reshuffle, Nixon made Richardson secretary of defense in January 1973. Less than four months later, however, Nixon named Richardson to be attorney general.

Richardson's appointment came at a time of growing concern about the credibility of Nixon's assertions that the White House had not been involved in the 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Committee's headquarters in the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. Richardson succeeded richard kleindienst, who left under a cloud of scandal for his involvement with Watergate and other politically charged issues.

Richardson's personal and professional integrity gave the Nixon administration new credibility. He appointed archibald cox, a professor at Harvard Law School, as special Watergate prosecutor to investigate whether federal laws had been broken in connection with the break-in and the attempted cover-up. Richardson assured Cox, who was a personal friend, that he would have complete independence in his work.

In July 1973, it was revealed that Nixon had secretly recorded conversations in his White House offices. Cox immediately subpoenaed the tapes of the conversations. When Nixon refused to honor the subpoena, Judge John Sirica ordered that the tapes be turned over. After the federal court of appeals upheld the order, Nixon offered Cox written summaries of the conversations in return for an agreement that no more presidential documents would be sought.

Cox refused the proposal. On Saturday, October 20, Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson and his deputy attorney general, William D. Ruckelshaus, resigned rather than carry out the order. Cox was fired that night by solicitor general robert h. bork. The two resignations and the firing of Cox became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre." Although Nixon would not resign until August 9, 1974, the events of the previous October 20 signaled the beginning of the end for his administration. Richardson, on the other hand, was celebrated for his courage and integrity.

gerald r. ford became president upon Nixon's resignation. He named Richardson to be U.S. ambassador to Great Britain in 1975. In 1976, Ford appointed Richardson to be secretary of commerce and in 1977 chose him to serve as ambassador at large, a post he held until 1980. Richardson was a senior partner at a Washington, D.C., law firm from 1980 to 1992.

"Certainty is the straightjacket of liberty; to dress a truth in authority is to stultify freedom of thought."
—Elliot Lee Richardson

In 1996, Richardson published Reflections of a Radical Moderate which recorded his observations about politics and government, based on his experiences in public service. Richardson died in Boston, Massachusetts, on December 31, 1999. In 2000, the nonprofit Council for Excellence established the Elliot Richardson Prize for Excellence in Public Service.

further readings

Coleman, William, et al. 2000. "He Wrote the Definition for 'Integrity': In Praise of Elliot Richardson, 1920–1999." Legal Times (January 10).

Greenya, John. 2000. "Elliot Richardson: The Last Interview." Washington Lawyer 14 (January–February).

Richardson, Elliot L. 1996. Reflections of a Radical Moderate. New York: Pantheon.


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