Mike Mansfield, the Saturday Night Massacre and rubber chicken in Boise

June 20, 2021 4:14 am

Left to right: C. H. Spencer, Hungry Horse Dam construction engineer; Margaret Truman; President Harry S. Truman; and Congressman Mike Mansfield at the Hungry Horse Dam project outside Kalispell, Montana during a stop on President Truman’s Western campaign trip. (Courtesy Truman Library/CC-BY-SA 4.0)

When the United States Senate recently failed to end a Republican filibuster and consider creation of an independent commission to investigate the details of the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, it was just the latest example of how profound partisanship frequently paralyzes even the most reasonable – and broadly supported – political action.

As Politico put it after efforts at bipartisan agreement unraveled: “the scuttled commission vote was a microcosm of Congress’ failed efforts to move forward after January 6: Two senators from opposite parties supported the same goals and briefly turned their frustrations on each other as 10 Republicans wouldn’t come on board.”

Such senatorial dysfunction has become so common that it can be difficult to remember a time when it didn’t routinely happen. One such time was nearly 50 years ago when Montana’s Mike Mansfield was in the last years of his history-making tenure as Senate Majority Leader.

Mansfield’s guiding hand steered the Senate to unanimous bipartisan support for the creation of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities – the Watergate Committee – in February 1973. The debate leading to the creation of the famous investigative committee was often acrimonious, with squabbles over the size, budget and scope of the probe, but in the end, the Senate performed. The committee’s dogged investigation, with Mansfield’s fingerprints all over the membership of the committee, ultimately led to Richard Nixon’s resignation in the summer of 1974.

What made the Senate so different then? Partisanship has long been a significant feature of American politics. Parties have always maneuvered, sometimes unfairly and less than honorably, for partisan advantage. Finding a way to stick it to your political opponent is time-tested. But the Senate was often different in the Mansfield Era. Why?

Part of the explanation, I believe, was Mansfield’s leadership style, an opinion reinforced for me after a recent research dive into the Montanan’s vast collection of Senate papers at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library at the University of Montana. By pure happenstance, I came across a Watergate related Mansfield story that, in microcosm, says much about his approach to political leadership.

One of the pivotal days in the months-long Watergate saga played out for Mansfield in the most unlikely of places: A “rubber-chicken” political dinner at a fairgrounds pavilion in Boise, Idaho.


Mansfield pushed hard to create what became the Watergate Committee, but wanting to avoid the appearance of partisanship he waited to do so until the presidential election of 1972 had been decided and Nixon’s re-election secured. He purposefully selected Sam Ervin, the drawling, Harvard-trained North Carolina senator recognized as the Senate’s foremost expert on the Constitution, to lead the investigation. Ervin was planning to retire and clearly had no larger political ambitions. Mansfield purposely passed over Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy for the investigative job, fearing Kennedy’s high profile and well-known presidential ambitions would put a partisan taint on the investigation.

While it’s clear from his statements and correspondence that Mansfield believed some serious wrongdoing had occurred when Republican operatives broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in 1972 during Nixon’s re-election campaign, he assiduously avoided attacks on Nixon. The important thing, Mansfield stressed, was that the system needed to work. The Senate needed to investigate, however long it took. The White House needed to cooperate. The institutions of the presidency and the Congress must be protected.

During the summer of 1973, even after Ervin’s committee had commenced televised hearings and after a cascade of revelations from, among others, the Washington Post about the extent of White House involvement in the break in and the subsequent coverup, Mansfield continued to keep his powder dry.

Asked by reporters if he believed Nixon’s public claim that he had no involvement in the Watergate affair, Mansfield said: “I think we ought to take him at his word.”

Under the American system every person is “innocent until proven guilty,” and that principle, Mansfield said, “applies to a President as well as to a pipe fitter.” His constant refrain was to let the system work.

Meanwhile, as we now know, Nixon was scrambling every day to salvage his presidency, hoping that the public would eventually grow weary of Watergate. But there was no containing the scandal, or the growing public engagement with the drip, drip of exposures.

Michael Dobbs, in his fascinating new book “King Richard: Nixon and Watergate an American Tragedy,quotes a top Nixon aide, Chuck Colson, who eventually went to jail for his role in Watergate, as lamenting the branding of the scandal.

“The damnable part,” Colson said, “is that it has a catchy name, like Teapot Dome.”

Nobody remembered what the oil leasing scandal of the Harding Administration was all about, “but they remember the name,” Colson told Nixon.

Having set the wheels in motion, and having empowered the investigators, Mansfield simply allowed the process of a serious Senate investigation to work. His entire career as majority leader was based on insisting on a sense of senatorial responsibility. He refused to twist arms. He made no backroom deals. He operated with candor, treating every senator as an equal, an approach to leadership that caused his Republican counterpart during the Watergate period, Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, to declare that Mansfield was “distinguished by his complete fairness and his total integrity [who] has in every instance put the interests of the country above any other consideration.”


Perhaps not surprisingly, Mansfield’s personal integrity, his sense of fair play and his profound dedication to the institution of the Senate gave him almost superhuman credibility when he finally did offer a carefully crafted opinion, which he did when Nixon made perhaps the single greatest  blunder of the Watergate saga on Saturday, Oct. 20, 1973.

Mansfield had spent most of that Saturday on airplanes traveling from Washington, D.C, to Boise, Idaho. By the time he arrived at his destination – he would be the keynote speaker that night at a testimonial dinner for Idaho Senator Frank Church – the Watergate crisis had exploded. That very day Nixon ordered his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire the special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox. Richardson resigned rather than carry out the president’s order, as did his deputy, William Ruckelshaus. Finally, the number three official at the Justice Department, then-solicitor general Robert Bork, fired Cox. On orders from the White House, FBI agents sealed off the offices of Richardson and Ruckelshaus, and the office of special prosecutor was abolished.

The Washington Post called what became known as “the Saturday Night Massacre” the “most traumatic governmental upheaval of the Watergate crisis.” It was immediately clear that Archibald Cox had been cashiered for continuing to pursue White House tape recordings that might implicate – or exonerate – Nixon. The firing made it clear, even to many of the most committed Nixon partisans, that the tapes weren’t going to be helpful to the president.

When Mansfield took the stage to speak in Boise – with a crowd of 1,000 on hand it was the largest political dinner to that date in Idaho history – he paid the obligatory, and no doubt genuine, homage to Church, who would later lead a celebrated investigation of the nation’s intelligence agencies, another investigation Mansfield helped orchestrate.

Yet, sometime during that Saturday Mansfield had found time to rework and update his speech to deal with the breaking news of the day. After acknowledging the dignitaries in the crowd, he went directly to the subject that must have been on everyone’s mind.

“This has been an incredible year,” Mansfield said. “This has been an incredible month. This has been an incredible week, and this has been an incredible day. The Watergate Committee is going to continue to lay their facts before the American people. We are tired of the skullduggery, of the snooping, of the dirty politics, and of the violation of our civil rights.”

The celebratory nature of the dinner honoring a fellow senator turned deadly serious as Mansfield continued. Two cabinet officers were under indictment, he said, three officials with White House or Nixon campaign responsibilities had pled guilty to crimes, the vice president had resigned recently in a bribery scandal and three separate grand juries were investigating Watergate and related crimes.

The American people must know what had happened and who was responsible, Mansfield said, “because basically a President, a Vice President, a Senator — are only temporary officers, holding office in an institution which is the permanent factor in the consideration of the affairs of this government, and no man, no matter what his position, is above the law.”

Still, Mansfield’s straightforward discussion of the complex Watergate tale stopped well short of any partisan broadside.

“One thing I want to make clear,” Mansfield said, “insofar as Watergate and all its implications are concerned, the Republican Party as such, insofar as I know, is clean as a whistle. And perhaps one of the reasons for the illegal unnecessary activities which occurred, may lie in the fact that there were no politicians of the Republican Party connected with the Committee to Re-Elect the President.”

It’s remarkable this many years later, and particularly in the context of current American politics, to reflect on the lengths to which Mansfield, the most senior Democrat in the country at the time of his Saturday Night Massacre speech in Idaho, went to avoid a partisan attack. He was speaking to a collection of Democrats, pitching the re-election of a fellow Democrat on the very night a Republican president had engaged in one of the most consequential abuses of power in American history. But the former history professor offered his Idaho audience a history lesson.

“In the weeks ahead the Senate is going to do what it has done all this year,” Mansfield said, “and that is to act constructively, to attend to our business, to keep politics to a minimum, and to make certain that this government of yours and ours functions.”

And Mansfield looked to the future.

“Perhaps out of this will come a purification and a cleansing which will be beneficial to the whole country and which will bring about a reordering of our priorities so that we can attend to the needs of our people first, and perhaps out of this will come a closer look at what the political office holders do. Their records will be scanned more carefully, and that is as it should be, and that is as it must be. We’re all paying a price at the moment because I think all of us in some degree are responsible for what we have allowed to occur. We’ve lost our sense of morality, I believe, to a certain degree, We’ve become too materialistic minded, and maybe a return to the old values and the old virtues might, in my opinion, stand us in good stead today.”


With perfect hindsight it’s obvious that Richard Nixon’s presidential days were numbered after the Saturday Night Massacre, and particularly after release of the White House tape recordings conclusively proving he had engaged in a cover-up of criminal activity. Yet, when Nixon resigned in August 1974 as the House of Representatives prepared to impeach him, Mansfield took no pleasure in these stunning developments.

In a final meeting with Nixon the day before he left the White House, the president thanked Congressional leaders and said he respected them even when they had disagreed.

“I was looking directly at Mike Mansfield when I said that,” Nixon later wrote, “but he did not react at all. He just sat there in a more dour mood than usual, puffing on his pipe.”

If the recent past tells us anything important about American politics it just might be this: Character counts, and political and governmental institutions are bigger and more important than any one person. Also that blind, passionate partisanship almost always gets in the way of the people’s business.

Montana’s Mansfield continues to cast a huge shadow across the political landscape of the last half of the 20th Century. There are many reasons for that, including a huge body of legislative work that has stood the test of time. But Mansfield brought something else to politics and to the Senate that has come close to disappearing in our time, a commitment to public service as a noble calling, a belief that the system must be allowed – and made – to work, as it did during Watergate.

Mansfield’s approach to a presidential and Constitutional crisis in the 1970s was among his finest moments. The country would benefit from his kind of leadership today.

Marc C. Johnson served as chief of staff to Idaho’s longest serving governor, Cecil D. Andrus. His most recent book is “Tuesday Night Massacre: Four Senate Elections and the Radicalization of the Republican Party” published earlier this year by the University of Oklahoma Press. He’s working on a book on the Senate leadership of Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen in the 1960s.

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