Comment: GOP’s blind loyalty reaches back to Watergate era

Elliot Richardson resigned rather than fire a special prosecutor. His courage didn’t register with his party.

By Michael Koncewicz / Special to The Washington Post

Why won’t prominent Republicans break with President Trump and admit that Joe Biden won the presidency? Why won’t they challenge the conspiracy theories and misinformation spouted by the White House and its surrogates and defend the integrity of the electoral process? Why did the last four years of the Trump administration yield few stories of internal resistance to the president’s abuses of power?

The career of Elliot Richardson sheds light on the answer. As the attorney general who refused to follow through on Nixon’s order to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, Richardson gained fame as a Watergate hero, and many were eager to hear from the courageous Republican whose resignation set off the Saturday Night Massacre. Yet, a decade later, a pro-Reagan businessman, Ray Shamie, would trounce Richardson, a moderate Republican, in the Massachusetts GOP Senate primary. Richardson’s sterling image could not overcome a Republican Party that had not only become more conservative since the Nixon era, but had also become more defined by a culture of loyalty.

On March 19, 1984, Richardson announced he was running for an open U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts by promising to be a “senator for Massachusetts” whose “experience has taught me how get things done in Washington.” Richardson often stressed his impressive résumé, referring to his “instant seniority,” but also reminded voters of his courageous resignation in his campaign announcement. “I am proud of what I have done, and I am proud of what my conscience would not let me do.”

Despite skepticism from conservatives, the moderate was greeted with polls that showed he was the front-runner. Since his Watergate fame, he had built his reputation as an independent-minded Republican. After his resignation, he worked in the Ford administration, first as the ambassador to the United Kingdom and then as secretary of commerce. He would strengthen his bipartisan bona fides when President Jimmy Carter appointed him to be the Special Representative of the President for the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea. Richardson helped shape an agreement that provided guidelines on the responsibilities of nations regarding their use of the world’s oceans. His work produced much skepticism among conservatives, and the Reagan administration chose to abandon the negotiations.

With Democratic voters leaning toward then-Lt. Gov. John Kerry, most analysts believed that Richardson was best suited to represent the Republicans. One poll showed that over 30 percent of Democratic voters said they would support Richardson in the general election. “It is quite unique to have a Republican candidate preferred by almost one third of the Democratic primary voters,” noted an early news release. In an open primary, Richardson’s advisers were confident that they could put together a winning coalition of voters that built on the successes of moderate Republicans who dominated the party from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Early advertisements emphasized the candidate’s impressive résumé, but also repeatedly reminded voters of the Saturday Night Massacre. Some conservative commentators dismissed Richardson’s resignation as old news that was out of step with the political culture of 1984. “The press can’t live on 10-year old clips, and once the news conference starts, the questions have nothing to do with the upcoming 10th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation,” wrote Howie Carr of the Boston Herald. A conservative critic, Carr referred to Richardson as “El-Yacht,” seeing him as out of step with the conservative movement’s more populist approach to politics. For them, resistance to Nixon was just evidence of Richardson’s establishment connections, not his heroism or independence.

The former attorney general’s elite upbringing and stilted demeanor stood in contrast to Shamie, his politically inexperienced opponent, who was a former member of the far-right John Birch Society. Shamie was the founder of Metal Bellows Corp. and was worth more than $20 million in 1984, but he rarely missed an opportunity to mention his working-class roots. “Ray Shamie came up the hard way,” read one news release, a clear contrast with moderate patricians like his opponent.

The primary also exposed significant policy differences, particularly when it came to taxes, foreign policy and the women’s rights movement, with Richardson siding with the moderates in the party. While Richardson was not eager to directly criticize Reagan, a then popular incumbent, he condemned much of the party’s conservative platform. During the final weeks of the campaign, Shamie successfully framed these policy disputes as loyalty tests, knowing that Republican voters approved of Reagan’s presidency and had become more conservative since the Saturday Night Massacre. At one point, there were rumblings that the Shamie campaign was setting up a fundraising tour with Nixon himself as a speaker, but the idea was eventually rejected by Shamie as too risky.

The candidates’ loyalty to the president was the main topic during their final debate in Boston, just eight days before the primary. Shamie told viewers that the primary was a battle for the “heart and soul of the state of the Republican Party” and used Richardson’s record to question his current loyalty to President Reagan. When Richardson countered these attacks by asking both Republicans and independents to vote for him, the pro-Shamie crowd jeered and laughed at his inclusion of the latter.

Polls taken after the final debate showed that Shamie had taken the lead, leading Richardson to send out a news release that condemned Shamie’s campaign. “We have a clear and present danger that this Republican primary will be decided by demagoguery, distortions and simplistic slogans.” The campaign’s staff also decided to focus their efforts on turning out Democrats and independent voters through publicizing a list of endorsements from dozens of prominent statewide Democrats and a final round of commercials that mentioned the Saturday Night Massacre.

Shamie defeated Richardson with more than 60 percent of the vote. Shamie would go on to lose to Kerry in the general election by 10 percentage points — even as Reagan narrowly carried the state — as the Democrats successfully convinced enough voters that Shamie was a right-wing extremist. Nevertheless, Shamie’s influence within the GOP would endure as he served as the state party’s chair from 1987 to 1991. Richardson did not hold a position in government again.

Media outlets have regularly brought up Richardson’s resignation, particularly when the current president has butted heads with people within his administration. After four years of waiting for Republicans to stand up to Trump, we are still waiting, even after he lost decisively. History has remembered Richardson fondly. And yet, his reputation led to little influence within the post-Watergate Republican Party because conservatives saw Richardson’s actions not as courageous but as a clear sign of his liberalism.

For conservatives, Watergate was another battle with liberals, and Richardson chose the wrong side. The lesson? Loyalty mattered over independence or conscience. And that may be why the next generation of Watergate heroes defending the integrity of American political institutions against corruption hasn’t emerged.

Michael Koncewicz is the Cold War collections specialist at New York University’s Tamiment Library and author of “They Said No to Nixon: Republicans Who Stood Up to the President’s Abuses of Power.”

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