Richardson's record of public service was wide-ranging. In the 1960s he was Massachusetts lieutenant governor and attorney general. Under Nixon he also served as secretary of health, education and welfare, secretary of defense and undersecretary of state. Under President Gerald Ford he was ambassador to Great Britain, secretary of commerce and the United States' chief negotiator at the Law of the Sea Conference. In 1984 he ran for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts. In 1990 he headed the U.N. delegation monitoring elections in Nicaragua.
He perhaps was best known, however, for refusing Nixon's order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox during the investigation of crimes, cover-ups and abuses of power revealed in the aftermath of the June 17, 1972, break-in by Nixon campaign operatives of Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Hotel.
Nixon was resisting Cox's attempts to subpoena tape recordings of White House discussions believed relevant to the investigation. Nixon, who eventually was driven from office by the Watergate affair, contended the nine tapes were privileged.
Richardson refused Nixon's order and resigned, as did his deputy, William Ruckelshaus. Solicitor General Robert Bork eventually executed the president's order, an action that probably doomed his nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987. The events took place on the night of Saturday, October 20, 1973.
"The more I thought about it, the clearer it seemed to me that public confidence in the investigation would depend on its being independent not only in fact but in appearance," Richardson wrote in his 1996 book, Reflections of a Radical Moderate.
A Harvard law graduate, he served in World War II and was decorated for heroism during and after the D-Day landings in Normandy, June 6, 1944. In 1998, Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
Reflections of a Radical Moderate
by Elliot Richardson.