When Cox was dismissed during the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” five months later, Mr. Ruth kept the office running until Leon Jaworski took over as special prosecutor on Nov. 1, 1973.
Mr. Ruth stayed on as Jaworski’s chief deputy during a tumultuous period when dozens of Watergate prosecutions took place and as a constitutional crisis about criminal activity at the highest levels of government played out between Congress and the White House.
The scandal began in June 1972, when five men with ties to President Richard M. Nixon’s reelection campaign were arrested while trying to install eavesdropping devices in Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington.
Nixon was reelected in November 1972 and remained in office as Cox and the special prosecution unit began to explore the depth of corruption in the administration.
After refusing to turn over tape recordings of White House conversations to investigators, Nixon demanded that Cox be fired as special prosecutor. Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, resigned rather than dismiss Cox. It then fell to Solicitor General Robert H. Bork, as acting attorney general, to carry out Nixon’s order.
During the confusing events of that Saturday night — Oct. 20, 1973 — Mr. Ruth was met at the door of the special prosecutor’s office by FBI officers, who initially denied him entry. He was told that the office of special prosecutor had been abolished.
“Let me tell you something,” Mr. Ruth reportedly replied. “I’m going up there.”
As members of his staff began to gather, Mr. Ruth rallied their spirits and vowed to continue the special prosecutor’s mission.
“He had called the staff together and made a compact with them to remain in their offices and preserve the evidence they had,” Samuel Dash, counsel to the Senate Watergate committee, told The Washington Post in 1973. “But for Hank Ruth, there might not have been a Watergate staff at all when Mr. Jaworksi took over.”
Mr. Ruth later described the standoff between Cox and Nixon as “the most profound moment of Watergate.”
“It was pretty clear to us,” he said in a 1992 CBS News documentary, “that this act of trying to abolish our office, firing Mr. Cox, was just a straight obstruction of justice.”
In July 1974, the Supreme Court ruled 8 to 0 that Nixon was required to turn over his tapes.
“For the first time,” Mr. Ruth said, “you really had a ruling that a president of the United States is not above the law, [that] the law will prevail over a president’s desire to keep something secret.”