Saxbe, William Bart
Saxbe, William Bart
William Bart Saxbe, a quotable lawyer, politician, and U.S. senator from Ohio, served as U.S. attorney general under President richard m. nixon. He also served as ambassador to India under President gerald r. ford.
Saxbe was born on June 24, 1916, in the farming community of Mechanicsburg, Ohio, to Bart Rockwell Saxbe, a religious and plain-spoken community leader who made his living as a cattle buyer, and Faye Henry Carey Saxbe, a political free-spirit who counted Patrick Henry among her ancestors. Saxbe's education seemed to be influenced by his parents' example; when he entered Ohio State University in 1936, he chose political science as his major field of study. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1940. In the fall of that year, he married Ardath Louise ("Dolly") Kleinhans. They eventually had three children: William Bart Jr., Juliet Louise, and Charles Rockwell.
While attending college, Saxbe was a member of the Ohio National Guard. After college, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, serving from 1940 to 1945. Saxbe was called to serve again during the Korean conflict in the 1950s; he was discharged from the reserve with the rank of colonel in 1963.
Immediately after World War II, Saxbe returned to Ohio with the intention of furthering his education. He gave serious thought to pursuing a career in the ministry of the Episcopal Church, but his long-standing interest in political and community service prevailed. Saxbe entered law school at Ohio State Univversity in 1945 and, simultaneously, launched a campaign to serve in the Ohio House of Representatives. He was elected and served four terms from 1947 to 1954. Saxbe completed his law degree at the end of his second term. He served as House majority leader in 1951 and 1952, and as speaker of the House in 1953 and 1954.
Saxbe left the Ohio legislature at the conclusion of his fourth term. He returned to Mechanicsburg, where he raised cattle on the family farm. He also partnered with two longtime friends to establish the Columbus, Ohio, law firm of Saxbe, Boyd, and Prine. He practiced law for two years before re-entering the political arena in 1956. In 1957, he ran as the Republican candidate for state attorney general. Over the next decade, he served four terms in that state office. As attorney general, Saxbe proved to be a tough and capable crime fighter. He believed that Capital Punishment was a strong deterrent and that stiff prison sentences should be imposed for gun-related crimes. Although conservative in his views on crime and money, Saxbe described himself as "liberal on the rights of people." In 1968, Saxbe took his unique mix of fiscal conservatism and social responsibility to the electorate. He ran as the Republican candidate for a U.S. Senate seat, and he won a close election over liberal Democrat John J. Gilligan. His stand against the Pentagon's deployment of antiballistic missiles during the Vietnam War surprised many of those who thought his campaign promises were mere rhetoric. Gilligan was quoted as saying, "If I had known he was going to be like this, I would have voted for him myself." Saxbe's voting record on most major issues showed that he moved gradually to the right during his four years in the U.S. Senate.
Saxbe was quickly disenchanted with life as a senator. He felt that many of his senate colleagues were sadly out of touch with the electorate. He alienated most of Washington when he said, "The first six months I kept wondering how I got [here]. After that, I started wondering how all of them did."
In addition to his disdain for the insulated lives of Washington politicians, Saxbe was frustrated with the pace of legislation on Capitol Hill. To address the problem, he joined forces with Senator Alan M. Cranston to develop a two-track system of moving legislation through the Senate. The system allowed less controversial bills to pass through the legislative process quickly, while more volatile measures were held for debate and discussion. When other efforts to improve the process stalled, Saxbe removed himself from the Senate entirely, by taking part in travel junkets. Saxbe's pleas for aid to East Bengal and for discontinuation of aid to Pakistan were direct results of his findings while on a trip; he considered these actions to be among his greatest achievements in the Senate.
Saxbe's frustration with Washington was not limited to the Senate. For example, Saxbe had defied protocol by challenging Nixon's Vietnam policy during a social gathering at the White House for freshman senators. In response, the president's staff kept Saxbe out of the Oval Office and away from Nixon for almost two years after that disastrous first meeting with the chief executive.
Saxbe's growing contempt for the White House staff reached a new height in 1971, when he referred to Nixon aides H. R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman as "a couple of Nazis" and again in 1972 when he commented on Nixon's professed innocence in the Watergate scandals, saying that the chief executive sounded "like the fellow who played the piano in a brothel for twenty years, and insisted that he didn't know what was going on upstairs." (The Watergate scandals began with a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters—located in the Watergate Office Towers—and eventually toppled the Nixon administration.)
In September 1973, Saxbe announced that he would not seek reelection to the Senate. Just a month later, Nixon asked him to accept an appointment as attorney general of the United States to replace elliot richardson. Richardson, Nixon's third attorney general, had resigned rather than obey an Executive Order to fire Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox. Saxbe was reluctant to accept the nomination, but he knew that the administration wanted to avoid a long confirmation battle and that his past criticism of the president would make him a credible candidate with both Nixon supporters and detractors.
After a two-hour discussion with Nixon, in which the president denied any knowledge or involvement in the Watergate scandals, Saxbe accepted the nomination. He took office in January 1974. His goal was to restore the Department of Justice's credibility with the U.S. public and to keep the public informed of the department's activities.
Saxbe initiated weekly news conferences at the beginning of his term but curtailed them quickly when he found that his offhand comments generated more interest than did his substantive efforts. Among Saxbe's more printable gaffes were his reference to Patty Hearst as a common criminal and his observation that Jewish intellectuals of the 1950s were enamored with the Communist party.
As attorney general, Saxbe supported legislation limiting access to criminal records of arrested and convicted persons, and he continued to favor capital punishment and tough sentences for gun-related crimes. He conducted an investigation into the FBI's counterintelligence program—Cointelpro—and condemned the program for its harassment of left-wing groups, black leaders, and campus radicals. He also worked on two of the biggest antitrust cases in history, against IBM and AT&T.
"I feel very strongly that the Justice Department is the very heart and soul of our country, because government without law is tyranny."
—William B. Saxbe
After Nixon's resignation, Saxbe continued to serve as attorney general in the Ford administration. He resigned in December 1974 to accept an appointment as U.S. ambassador to India.
For the next 20 years, Saxbe practiced law in Florida, Ohio, and Washington, D.C., and he remained active in Republican Party politics. In March 1994, he announced that he would join the Columbus, Ohio, law firm of Chester, Hoffman, Willcox, and Saxbe, where his son was a partner.
Saxbe is often called upon to speak about the turmoil of the Watergate years and his experience in the final days of the Nixon administration. On the eve of Nixon's funeral in April 1994, Saxbe acknowledged that he had never made an attempt to see Nixon again after his resignation because the former president had lied to him about his involvement in the Watergate scandals.
Saxbe published an autobiography in 2000 while continuing to practice law at Chester, Willcox & Saxbe, where he specialized in general business law and strategic counsel. In 2002, the auditorium of Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law was named the William B. Saxbe Law Auditorium in recognition of his history of public service and his generous donations to the school.
Barrett, John Q. 1998. "All or Nothing, or Maybe Cooperation: Attorney General Power, Conduct, and Judgment in Relation to the Work of an Independent Counsel." Mercer Law Review 49 (winter).
Powell, H. Jefferson. 1999. The Constitution and the Attorneys General. Durham, N.C: Carolina Academy Press.
Saxbe, William B., with Peter D. Franklin. 2000. I've Seen the Elephant. Kent, Ohio: Kent State Univ. Press.