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Richard Nixon says goodbye with a victorious salute to his staff members outside the White House as he boards a helicopter after resigning the Presidency on Aug. 9, 1974. Nixon was the first president in American history to resign the nation's highest office.AP

David Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. He teaches at McGill’s Max Bell School of Public Policy.

Much of contemporary American politics can be traced to a little-remembered and dimly understood event that occurred a half-century ago, on Oct. 20, 1973.

The Saturday Night Massacre, the 1973 effort by Watergate-tormented Richard Nixon to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, set in motion several events that have become familiar elements of the American political landscape: disputes over whether presidents are above the law. Debates about the limits of presidential behaviour. Controversies over whether presidents are vulnerable to prosecution. Defiance of judicial orders. Disrespect of independent judicial investigators. Impeachment inquiries. Political polarization. Broad questions about the rule of law. At a minimum, the Saturday Night Massacre (which occurred long before half of today’s Americans were even born) was a turning point in the Watergate scandal. It may also have been a turning point in American history.

It transformed the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, which started as a police investigation and then became a political contretemps, into a full-blown constitutional crisis. It took the doctrine of executive privilege (which dated back to George Washington) from a low-profile tool that presidents occasionally employed, and rendered it a persistent matter of legal controversy; almost every future president, including Donald Trump, would assert the notion. It revived presidential impeachment, which had been dormant for 105 years, into a contemporary instrument of politics; three of the four presidential impeachments in American history occurred after this episode.

It led to the resignation of Mr. Nixon, the only president to do so in American history. It prompted overhauls of the country’s campaign-finance system. It deepened the cynicism that had begun to take root a decade earlier, during the Vietnam War. It hastened a fundamental change in the relationship between presidents and the press. It transformed distrust in institutions from an occasional phenomenon into a lasting characteristic of American life.

The trigger was the discovery that the 37th president had secretly taped conversations in the Oval Office, a revelation that prompted astonishment at a time when it was not widely known that Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson also had made White House recordings.

For weeks Mr. Nixon asserted executive privilege in resisting the efforts of Mr. Cox to gain access to 10 hours of the tapes. When an appeals court ruled the president had to comply, Mr. Nixon told attorney-general Elliot Richardson he would submit a summary of the contents of the recordings to the court, and then have Democratic senator John Stennis of Mississippi listen to the tapes to determine the authenticity of the summary.

Neither Mr. Cox, so revered and respected a figure in legal circles that Ken Gormley subtitled his 1997 Cox biography Conscience of a Nation, nor Mr. Richardson, at the time the very model of a modern major Republican, regarded the Nixon deal as remotely acceptable. Mr. Nixon ordered Mr. Richardson to fire his onetime law professor, Mr. Cox. He refused and resigned. His deputy, William Ruckelshaus, also refused to comply and was “discharged,” though Mr. Nixon’s letter to the third-in-command, Robert Bork, said that Mr. Ruckelshaus had resigned. Mr. Bork – later a prominent figure when the Senate rejected his 1987 Supreme Court nomination – finally assented and fired Mr. Cox.

“This was when people suddenly saw that Nixon might actually be the crook they thought he was,” Jill Wine-Banks, one of the Watergate prosecutors, said in an interview this week. “It was a beheading of the Department of Justice and the special prosecutor. It was an ‘Oh-my-God’ moment.”

The result was a furor seldom seen in Washington. Mr. Nixon ordered the FBI to seal the Richardson, Ruckelshaus and Cox offices. More than 50,000 people sent telegrams to the White House. More than 20 members of Congress filed impeachment resolutions. “It created so much national revulsion and concern,” said Timothy Naftali, the Montreal native who became director (from 2007 to 2011) of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, “that the impeachment inquiry that ensued had bipartisan support.”

Mr. Cox’s finest hour came after one of Mr. Nixon’s worst. In a press statement the night of his firing, he said, “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.”

Today, the threshold for inquiries into the impeachment of a president has been lowered; Joe Biden is currently the subject of such an investigation. Today, defiance of a court order is no longer extraordinary; Alabama this year resisted judicial commands to redraw congressional representation maps. And today, the rule of law often seems subservient to the rule of party. The victims of the Saturday Night Massacre were not only the three figures who lost their jobs, but also a nation that lost its innocence.

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