Susanne Thevenet was in New York when she heard the news.
The “Saturday Night Massacre,” it came to be called.
Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, fired on Oct. 20, 1973, by acting attorney general Robert Bork, the third man President Richard Nixon had ordered to carry out the task. The other two, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, had instead resigned their posts, according to the Washington Post.
Thevenet looked for a newspaper but couldn’t find a current edition.
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She’d known something wasn’t quite right in the days leading up to Cox’s firing — from her desk in the Watergate Special Prosecution Force’s Washington, D.C., offices she’d watched her boss, Philip Lacovara, counsel to the special prosecutor, make more frequent trips to Cox’s office in the adjoining suite. Cox, tasked with investigating the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, had subpoenaed Nixon’s tape recordings. Those recordings were thought to contain evidence of the White House’s involvement in the scandal. The president, as he’d done for months, continued to withhold them.
“We were waiting for the other shoe to fall,” Thevenet recently said on a chilly December morning. She sat on a sofa in her Dataw Island home, more than 40 years removed from her role as assistant to the counsel to the special prosecutor. As she recalled those two years of her life, a grandfather clock chimed.
We were waiting for the other shoe to fall.
She’d been hesitant to go to New York on that Saturday all those years ago, but she kept her appointment. She didn’t get to see her then-boyfriend often, and he’d already taken time off for the long weekend — the following Monday was Veterans Day, celebrated toward the end of October that year.
Hours earlier that day, before catching a train to the city, she and many of her fellow staffers followed at a distance behind Cox as he walked to an afternoon news conference at the National Press Club. (“The four-block walk,” she remembered, and they were instructed to give Cox space so he wouldn’t get emotional.)
Moments later she listened as Cox told reporters he could not accept a compromise Nixon had proposed — the release of summarized material from the tapes — and that he would continue to pursue the president’s recordings.
“I realized,” Thevenet said — she paused — “that this was a part of history.”
The “Saturday Night Massacre” began as she traveled to New York; after arriving and failing to find a newspaper, she called the prosecution force’s office. A staffer answered the phone but was reluctant to talk — the office could be bugged.
She learned FBI agents had been ordered into the suite — they were later replaced by U.S. Marshals, according to the New York Times — and many of her fellow staffers stayed behind to ensure nothing was taken, she said.
She went to bed worried and woke up early the next morning to find a paper, and figure out what she was going to do.
Among other things, Thevenet helped manage the prosecution force’s law library. She could type, she’d had some library courses, and she earned a master’s degree in library science at Catholic Univesrity of America while working for the force.
Sue’s job was to make sure we compiled a library of legal materials that could be quick, but in-depth, legal resources.
“Sue’s job was to make sure we compiled a library of legal materials that could be quick, but in-depth, legal resources,” Lacovara told The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette during a recent phone interview. Thevenet was always “ready with a wisecrack,” he said, and she could be “edgy when necessary.”
“Very quickly I concluded she was bright enough to take on various responsibilities,” he said.
She shelved books. Cleaned up after lawyers who’d scattered materials about as they wrote legal briefs. Retrieved documents from the Justice Department. Maintained all the litigation files. And checked in with the clerk of court to make sure convicted defendants paid their fines.
Later, she edited transcripts of Nixon’s tapes that were about to be submitted as evidence.
And she was doing that on Sept. 8, 1974, when a call came into the office announcing President Gerald Ford had pardoned Nixon, who had resigned almost a month earlier.
“Holy smoke!” she said, recalling that Sunday. “Everything in the office ground to a halt for about 20 minutes or half an hour, while everybody cursed, yelled and did everything else.
“And then it was, ‘We have a job to do, we have to have these transcripts in court tomorrow morning. Get back to your desk and go back to work.’”
Thevenet worked with the prosecution team from July 1973 to September 1975, as noted in the Watergate Special Prosecution Force Report — her name is listed on Page 276.
“No group of prosecutors and supporting personnel ever have labored under greater public scrutiny,” the report said.
No group of prosecutors and supporting personnel ever have labored under greater public scrutiny.
Watergate Special Prosecution Force Report
During her time with the force, Thevenet assisted with efforts that saw the indictments, resignations and prosecutions of top Washington officials. She and her team also uncovered illegal campaign contributions that led to high-dollar fines. And she was part of a wave of pressure that challenged the highest office in the country and, eventually, forced a president to resign.
“So, whatever became of Watergate?” Thevenet asked. “We are a nation of laws. And if you break the law, even if you’re the president, you will pay a price.”
Today, Thevenet doesn’t have much memorabilia from her time with the force. Loved ones, introducing her to others, sometimes tell them about her old job — “You might as well tell them I drive an Oldsmobile,” she jokes in response. Her grown children haven’t expressed much interest in her former role — “And what would I tell them?” she says.
But one thing she’s held on to is an old newspaper article — one of the clips a colleague compiled daily so the special prosecutor and his team could keep up with the headlines. The old New York Times piece is dated Oct. 24, 1973, and has a picture of three Cox staffers, including Lacovara, walking to court, not even a week after the president forced the firing of their leader and tried to abolish the special prosecution force.
She kept the clip — and ordered a glossy copy of the photo — as a reminder of the time. “Grim” is how she describes it, and the expression on Lacovara’s face.
After learning about the “Saturday Night Massacre” when she arrived in New York, Thevenet said she probably wasn’t very good company.
She took a train to Washington on Monday.
And went back to work.