Donald Trump decision to fire James Comey has triggered a firestorm of controversy, one that will likely only grow in the days to come. As pundits and commentators are attempting to come to terms with it, many of them are reaching out to the only comparable example of presidential action under similar circumstances, the "Saturday Night Massacre" that provided one of the most dramatic moments of the Watergate crisis.
Hearing the analogies (valid or strained) makes me grateful for having read Stanley Kutler's book so many years ago. At the time I was preparing to teach U.S. history for the first time, and while I had a decent overall grasp of the subject I needed a better understanding of some of the knottier topics. Kutler's book gave me that understanding and more, as he unpacks the events of Watergate in a detailed account that provides clarity to the events he chronicles. He traces the genesis of the scandal that destroyed Nixon's presidency to his reaction to Daniel Ellsberg's leaking of the Pentagon Papers. Determined to hunt down leakers yet frustrated by J. Edgar Hoover's foot-dragging response to his request for help (as Hoover hadn't survived four and a half decades as FBI director by going along with politically disastrous ideas), he had his staff create their own in-house team to stop leaks (hence their nickname "Plumbers"). Having such a tool at hand proved too much of a temptation, and they were soon employed in a number of "black bag" operations culminating in the effort to tap the phones of the head of teh Democratic National Committee.
The heart of Kutler's book, however, is in his explanation of the investigations that followed. This required him to chart the inquiries undertaken by all three branches of government, as well as the administration's response (both public and private) to them. Though Kutler gives short shrift to the famous labors of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, given his background as a constitutional historian his decision to focus on the legal and political dimensions is understandable enough, especially as it is these areas which ultimately were key to Nixon's downfall. Reading it gave me a real appreciation for both the scope of the Nixon administration's faults and the principled, even heroic, efforts by many to uncover the truth and uphold the law. I can only hope that people that brave serve our country today.