Canada’s Mr. Saturday Night


Convivium, 1 March 2019

Who’d have thought, Editor in Chief Father Raymond de Souza asks, that Justin Trudeau would be Canada’s version of Tricky Dick Nixon?

Live from Ottawa, it’s Saturday Night!

Yes, and that is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the role of Richard Nixon. Trudeau dumped his attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, when she would not do his political bidding. More than a touch Nixonian that, and JWR had a sense that it was coming.

(Aside: The media use of initials – FDR, JFK, LBJ – came at a time when editors were loathe to assign precious headline space to long surnames. Even in the digital age, the double-barrelled surname is hard to accommodate, and so JWR seems to be popping up here and there.)

She told the House of Commons justice committee that she was hounded by the prime minister and his chief aides for months to drop the SNC-Lavalin prosecution and so began to fear that a “Saturday Night Massacre” was in the offing. And she was right; the prime minister was getting ready to replace her with a more amenable attorney general.

Every attorney general knows about the Saturday Night Massacre, though I fear some younger readers might have missed the allusion. On Saturday night, October 20 1973, Richard Nixon ordered his attorney general, Elliott Richardson, to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Cox had subpoenaed the White House tapes, much to Nixon’s chagrin. Richardson refused to fire him and resigned immediately in protest.

The next in command was the deputy attorney general, William Ruckelshaus. Nixon ordered him to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus refused and also resigned.

That left the solicitor general, Robert Bork – of future supreme court nomination fame – as the head of the justice department. He considered resigning but agreed to fire Cox. He subsequently appointed a new special prosecutor, and Watergate resumed its course.

About 10 years ago, I had a chance to meet Bork in a social setting and the conversation made its way around to the Saturday Night Massacre. I asked him about it. He said that he thought Nixon’s order to fire Cox was wrong, both on the law and the politics. But, he argued, that point had been abundantly made by the resignations of the attorney general and his deputy. Another resignation would have not made the point any more clearly, and Bork thought that there should be someone around to run the justice department at a moment of constitutional crisis, and to see that the investigation continued, which it did.

All of which raises a most important question: When is it right to resign in protest? When it is right to protest and not resign?

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