Sun May 30, 2004

A Government of Laws and not of Men

Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor whom Richard Nixon attempted to fire in the Saturday Night Massacre has died at the age of 92. I use a video about those events in my social theory class, when we read Weber, because it nicely illustrates Weber’s views about authority and bureaucracy.

As the video goes on, you can draw an organizational chart of the official relationships between the main players—Nixon, Agnew and Haig in the White House; Cox, Elliott Richardson, William Ruckleshaus and Robert Bork at the Justice Department—and see how Nixon’s efforts to fire Cox were, in effect, an effort to act like he was the King rather than the President. Nixon didn’t have the authority to fire Cox even though he had the authority to fire Cox’s superiors. After Attorney General Richardson and his deputy Ruckleshaus had refused Nixon’s demands and themselves been fired, Robert Bork—then Solicitor General and third in line at Justice—agreed to do the job. Weber’s analysis of office-holding is nicely illustrated in Richardson’s refusal: “Methodical provision is made for the regular and continuous fulfilment of these duties and for the execution of the corresponding rights … When the principle of jurisdictional ‘competency’ is fully carried through, hierarchical subordination—at least in public office—does not mean that the ‘higher’ authority is simply authorized to take over the business of the ‘lower.’ “ In the video, Bork is interviewed about his decision and in his defence says “Cox had done nothing wrong, but the President can’t be faced down in public by a subordinate official.” When paired with Cox’s famous statement that night—”Whether ours shall be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people”—you get a perfect articulation of the difference between traditional and legal-rational authority in a democracy.

The interesting thing is that you don’t have to stop there. Because it’s clear from the video that Richardson’s great personal integrity (Nixon called him a “pious son of a bitch”) carried him through Nixon’s efforts to pressure him, and the following day Richardson got a standing ovation from the staff at Justice as he formally announces his resignation. So two other Weberian ideas—that office-holding is a vocation, and that charisma can persist in bureaucracies—are also relevant.

It’s an effective way to teach this bit of Weber, because he isn’t the most charismatic writer in the world himself, and although the students have heard of Watergate, the details of the constitutional crisis that culminated in the Saturday Night Massacre are new to them.