William Saxbe, attorney general in Nixon administration and former US Senator from Ohio, dies

By Jeannie Nuss, AP
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

William Saxbe, attorney general under Nixon, dies

COLUMBUS, Ohio — William Saxbe, a Republican maverick who became the fourth attorney general to serve under President Richard M. Nixon and presided during the Watergate investigation, died Tuesday. He was 94.

Saxbe, who served in the Ohio Legislature and as state attorney general, died at his home in Mechanicsburg, northwest of Columbus, said his son, Charles “Rocky” Saxbe.

Nixon’s first two attorneys general were accused of Watergate-related crimes and the third, Elliot Richardson, resigned to protest Nixon’s efforts to limit the investigation into the break-in and cover-up attempts.

Searching for a nominee who would be easily confirmed, the president chose Saxbe, a lame-duck one-term U.S. senator who had once labeled the Nixon administration “one of the most inept” in history.

Saxbe was a politician who “just did everything right,” Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett said.

“He was probably the only one who could have got confirmed as attorney general of the United States after the ‘Saturday night massacre,’” Bennett said, referring to the 1973 firing on Nixon’s orders of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox and the resignation of the Justice Department’s top two officials.

Saxbe took office in 1974 served for just longer than a year. He resigned Feb. 1, 1975, six months after President Gerald Ford took office, to become ambassador to India, a post he held until January 1977.

Saxbe’s first mission as attorney general was to convince the public and the White House that he would brook no interference with the operations of the independent Watergate prosecutor. Those involved said he made good on the promise.

The Watergate scandal, which involved a 1972 break-in at Democratic National Committee offices later traced to the Committee to Re-elect the President, led to the resignation of several in the Nixon administration as well as convictions related to cover-up efforts. Nixon resigned in August 1974 and denied involvement, but audio tapes he later released on a judge’s order showed he had tried to inhibit the investigation.

By midsummer 1974, Saxbe was convinced Nixon had lied to him and to the American people, Saxbe wrote in his 2000 autobiography. He said Nixon “wrecked the Republican Party” and that he didn’t go to Nixon’s funeral in 1994.

“He had lied to me … and he tried to involve me in his lies. I never can forgive him for that,” Saxbe wrote.

Saxbe was known for strong opinions and blunt comments. In 1971, he referred to Nixon’s aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman as “a couple of Nazis.”

And his comment about the resumption of the bombing of North Vietnam in 1972 was widely reported: “I have followed President Nixon through all his convulsions and specious arguments, but he appears to have lost his senses on this.”

Such comments dismayed the Justice Department hierarchy when he was in office.

A few months into his tenure, Patricia Hearst, the young daughter of a San Francisco newspaper publisher who had been kidnapped two months earlier by the Symbionese Liberation Army, was photographed as a participant when SLA members robbed a bank.

Saxbe told reporters the SLA was a band of “common criminals … and Miss Hearst is a part of it.”

In saying that, Saxbe was publicly expressing his opinion of the guilt of a woman who had not been charged with a crime. The statement went against the Constitution and the code of the legal profession.

He went into seclusion for weeks and emerged with a new speechwriter. He continued to speak out and take strong positions but was more conscientious about expressing the department’s official view and sticking to facts.

As attorney general, he pushed for legislation limiting access to criminal records of suspects and to files relating to investigations.

After Ford became president, Saxbe’s work included ordering the 1974 filing of an antitrust lawsuit that eventually led to the breakup of AT&T into seven companies.

Saxbe had been a favorite of Ohio voters — a member of the state House of Representatives at 29, majority leader at 34, speaker at 37, Ohio attorney general, then U.S. senator. As the state’s attorney general, Saxbe was a voice for capital punishment and stiff sentences for gun-related crimes.

“Though his life and public service transcended so much of our state and nation’s history, Sen. William Saxbe never lost his connection to ordinary Ohioans. And Ohioans loved him for that,” Gov. Ted Strickland said in a statement.

Attorney General Richard Cordray said in a statement that after he heard Saxbe had died, his thoughts “turned immediately to the portrait of this man, which hangs to this day in the attorney general’s office. On it are emblazoned two quotes attributed to him: that he was, ‘conservative on money and crime,’ and that he was also, ‘liberal on the rights of people.’ These are principles that served him and Ohio well.”

When Saxbe got to Washington in 1969, he surprised some fellow Republicans by taking unexpectedly liberal positions, such as his stand against development of anti-ballistic missiles.

He was also a social man, often breaking into song around a piano at parties running into the morning hours. Dixieland jazz was his favorite, and he once recorded “Ace in the Hole” with an Ohio group called Waldo’s Gutbucket Syncopators.

The family will have a private service and burial, Rocky Saxbe said. A public memorial service also will be planned.

Saxbe is survived by wife Ardath “Dolly” Saxbe; daughter Juli Spitzer of Jackson Hole, Wyo.; sons Rocky Saxbe of Columbus and William Bart Saxbe Jr. of Williamstown, Mass.; nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Associated Press Writer JoAnne Viviano contributed to this report.

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