William B. Saxbe, 94

William B. Saxbe, Nixon attorney general during Watergate case, dies at 94

As attorney general, Mr. Saxbe was lauded for making the Justice Department more independent.
As attorney general, Mr. Saxbe was lauded for making the Justice Department more independent. (United Press International)
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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2010

William B. Saxbe, a blunt-spoken and independent-minded Republican senator from Ohio who helped shield the Watergate investigation from political meddling when he became U.S. attorney general in 1973, died Aug. 24 at his home in Mechanicsburg, Ohio. He was 94 and had been ill with pancreatic cancer.

Mr. Saxbe took the helm of the Justice Department as the administration of President Richard M. Nixon was beginning to crumble under allegations that the White House was involved in covering up a break-in at the Watergate office complex, where the Democratic National Committee was headquartered.

Two of Nixon's previous attorneys general, John Mitchell and Richard Kleindienst, had been implicated in the Watergate affair. The third, Elliot Richardson, resigned rather than obey orders to fire Archibald Cox, the hard-charging special prosecutor assigned to the Watergate case.

Mr. Saxbe, a tobacco-chewing cattle rancher with a penchant for candor, was not an obvious choice as a replacement. He had taken frequent shots at the administration, once saying that Nixon's claims that he knew nothing of the Watergate coverup were like "the man who plays piano at a bawdy house for 20 years and says he doesn't know what's going on upstairs."

Mr. Saxbe also called Nixon aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman "Nazis," and he said the Nixon administration was "the most inept" in history.

Mr. Saxbe's willingness to criticize the Republican president made him a safe choice, likely to win approval in the Democrat-controlled Senate. He was confirmed in December 1973 after warning Nixon: "You have to take me warts and all."

As attorney general, Mr. Saxbe was known as a hands-off manager with a habit of leaving the office at 5 p.m. sharp and an abiding affection for golf. His habits drew criticism, to which Mr. Saxbe replied: "When I see a guy working all night, I see a guy who can't get his work done."

Communication gaffes

Mr. Saxbe invited the press to informal weekly meetings featuring coffee, doughnuts and a steady stream of foot-in-mouth moments.

At one meeting, Mr. Saxbe offended the powerful family of Patty Hearst when he said that the young socialite, who had been kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army and was then photographed taking part in a robbery with SLA members, was a "common criminal."

Another time, he declared that during the 1950s, "the Jewish intellectual" was "very enamored of the Communist Party."

As journalists sought Mr. Saxbe's next quotable stumble, it was not long before the meetings were canceled.

Mr. Saxbe was lauded, however, for bringing greater independence to the Justice Department and for helping maintain the integrity of the Watergate investigation. Over the objection of Nixon administration officials, he published a report on impeachment and ruled that in a Senate trial, the president would have to pay his own legal fees.


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