Elliot Richardson: A Man of Principle

  • By Donald A. Carr
  • Westphalia Press
  • 678 pp.
  • Reviewed by Donald T. Bliss
  • July 2, 2024

A comprehensive look at the life of an admirable public servant.

Elliot Richardson: A Man of Principle

For the younger generations, the name Elliot Richardson (1920-1999) may resonate, if at all, as belonging to the attorney general who resigned rather than follow President Richard Nixon’s order to fire the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal. The October 20, 1973, Saturday Night Massacre, as it is known today, has come to symbolize how, at a time of national crisis, a public servant of integrity can put loyalty to the country and the Constitution above loyalty to any person, party, or advancement of his own career. Although it has been more than 50 years, it is no wonder that we keep hearing about it these days.

Donald A. Carr’s exhaustive Elliot Richardson: A Man of Principle, the product of over 700 interviews and research into multiple papers and subject areas, is late in coming, over a decade after the author’s death. Its publication, thanks to Carr’s family and Westphalia Press, is nonetheless timely. In this era of hyperbolized politics, partisan warfare, institutional skepticism, and cultural division, it’s instructive to be reminded that we can choose leaders who rise above the fray, work across party lines to build consensus, apply principled analysis and intellectual rigor to solve problems, and skillfully thread through the unanticipated minefields that threaten a democracy.

As Carr makes clear, the integrity, courage, and sense of duty on display that Saturday in October was manifested throughout Richardson’s long career in the public and private sectors. While writing the book, he had access to many hours of Richardson’s time and to many of his friends, colleagues, and contemporaries.

The author traces the evolution of Richardson’s passion for public service from a privileged but complicated childhood. The second of three brothers who lost their mother shortly after the birth of her third son, Richardson was raised by a disciplinarian, Mrs. Brown, as his father, a renowned surgeon who suffered a debilitating stroke in his 50s, was only sporadically attentive. Richardson was the product of elite schools — the Milton Academy, Harvard College, and Harvard Law School (where he was president of the Law Review) — and clerkships for the most esteemed jurist never appointed to the Supreme Court, Learned Hand, and for preeminent justice Felix Frankfurter.

Most important in shaping the steely determination of a public servant who would not bend to prevailing political winds was Richardson’s service as a card-carrying member of “the greatest generation.” Leaving law school to join the Medical Corps of the 4th Infantry Division, he found himself on Utah Beach during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, dodging mines to save the lives of soldiers with blown-off limbs entangled in barbed wire. The courage he would later exhibit under political fire would pale in comparison to the courage displayed under Nazi fire. Despite two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, and escaping hospitalization to hitchhike to the Belgian border to rejoin his division, this renaissance man found the time during rare breaks in combat to compose sonnets and paint watercolors.

Carr details Richardson’s long, varied, and “choppy career” as a legislative aide to Republican senator Leverett Saltonstall, who worked closely with the other Massachusetts senator, Democrat John F. Kennedy; as an assistant secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) in the Eisenhower administration; as a corruption-fighting U.S. attorney in Boston who was fired by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy for taking on Irish politicians; as Massachusetts’ lieutenant governor and attorney general; as the under secretary of state who worked closely with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and won the respect of President Nixon; as a record-setting four-time cabinet secretary; as ambassador to the Court of St. James; as the ambassador in the Carter administration who represented the U.S. in the negotiation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the legal framework overseeing two-thirds of the earth’s surface; and as a private attorney who nimbly persuaded Ronald Reagan to fund the U.N., then on the verge of bankruptcy.

Carr’s treatment of each of these experiences is detailed but inconsistent. As a lawyer, he does a masterful job of chronicling Richardson’s role in the constitutional crisis the nation would’ve faced had there been simultaneous impeachments of a sitting president and vice president. Richardson personally and deftly managed the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had a long history of taking cash bribes, paving the way for a smooth transition when Nixon resigned.

The story of the events leading up to the Saturday Night Massacre is told with drama and flare, with occasional speculation as to Richardson’s mindset. A fifth of the book and its thorough endnotes deal with these few months of Richardson’s career, which is important for scholarship and teaching the hard-learned lessons of history, lest they be repeated, but which were not what Richardson considered the essence of his public service.

The lawyer Carr also details the negotiation of the Law of the Sea convention, which Richardson did see as among his finest accomplishments. Yet, in discussing Richardson’s federal and state domestic service, Carr misses the opportunity to illustrate how Richardson used politics as a means to achieve good policy and why he was so effective as a leader, motivator, and manager of people. When the largest federal department, HEW, was in chaos, deemed unmanageable, and its secretary was ill, Nixon turned to Richardson, in the words of Richardson’s beloved uncle and mentor, Henry Shattuck, “to clean the Augean stables, a job most humbling and impossible.”

Richardson served as secretary of HEW from June 1970 to January 1973, his longest cabinet tenure. eHeHe shepherded through major policy initiatives and brought cohesion to the sprawling bureaucracy of independent fiefdoms. In his many positions, he listened intently to diverse voices, respected the career employees, cultivated and rewarded talent, mastered numerous subjects, and gained the enduring respect and affection of thousands in his employ.

This comprehensive biography ends on a sad note. After basking in the short-lived glory as the hero (to some) of the Saturday Night Massacre, Richardson failed to attain his personal goal of higher elected office, having been passed over for vice president and losing the Republican primary for senator from Massachusetts to a John Bircher. To this day, the U.S. Senate has failed to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty. In declining health, Richardson was asked by a student what he considered his most important achievement. His response:

“All of my accomplishments pale in comparison to what I have left undone.”

Ambassador Donald T. Bliss (ret.) was appointed by Elliot Richardson in 1969 as the first executive secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. He is co-author, with William T. Coleman Jr., of Counsel for the Situation: Shaping the Law to Realize America’s Promise, which details Coleman’s lifelong friendship with Richardson.

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