The glowing obituaries reciting Elliot Richardson's superb educational record and long list of governmental accomplishments say much about what he did but not enough about who he was and why our country is forever in his debt.
In the spring, summer and early fall of 1973, Elliot and I found ourselves at the Department of Justice during a period of genuine crisis for the country. When President Nixon appointed Richardson attorney general in May of that year, the Senate insisted, as a condition of his confirmation, that he and the president endorse the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the exploding Watergate crimes.
Archibald Cox, solicitor general during the Kennedy administration, was Elliot's choice. As a result, the Senate quickly confirmed the new attorney general. Elliot was then serving as secretary of defense, having held positions during President Nixon's first term as undersecretary of state and secretary of health, education and welfare. He was widely admired for his intelligence, administrative ability and iron Yankee integrity. The looming crisis soon to engulf the Justice Department was to test all of Elliot's long experience and dedication to principle.
Over the next six months, Elliot had to cope with accusations of bribery against Vice President Spiro Agnew in a Baltimore grand jury and a confrontation with the president over whether the special prosecutor should be fired for seeking tapes of the president's conversations in the Oval Office relevant to the Watergate accusations.
Elliot was subjected to the most intense political pressure imaginable. His political star was rising, and the men who could most affect his future had committed acts that forced him as attorney general to investigate them personally. Yet, the fact that both the president and vice president were members of Elliot's party never affected his judgment.
Throughout the six-month ordeal of investigating the vice president and trying to resolve the impending collision between the president and Archibald Cox, Elliot sought to be fair. He bent over backward to discover the truth in the charges against Agnew--even requiring lie detector tests for his five accusers.
The overwhelming nature of the case against the vice president eventually left Elliot no choice but to pursue his resignation. The criminal trial or impeachment (his other two choices) of a sitting vice president serving under a besieged president was almost unthinkable. Under the circumstances, the vice president's resignation was good for the country and created a stable situation, with Gerald Ford in office, for the presidential resignation that followed.
In his struggle with the president over the White House tapes, Elliot tried several ways to avoid a direct confrontation with the man who had three times made him a member of his administration. For a solid week he tried to reconcile his loyalty to the president and his pledge to protect the integrity of the investigation into alleged presidential wrongs. In the end, his choice to resign was dictated by his character and judgment about what was best for his country.
Remarkably, over our history, our country has served up superior people consistent with our needs. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt are revered examples of this American capacity. Some would say we are lucky. I believe that free societies are more likely to create people of judgment and character, and that they in turn are more likely to serve when called, than societies laboring under freedom's absence.
Yes, our country is better off because Elliot Richardson lived, but do not forget that it is our country and its principles that helped form this man. Elliot Richardson's life and the choices he made in a time of national crisis are a tribute to him and the enduring values of America.
The writer, who served in a number of positions in the Nixon and Reagan administrations, was dismissed as deputy attorney general in October 1973 after he, too, refused to fire Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox.