WASHINGTON — Robert Bork says President Richard Nixon promised him the next Supreme Court vacancy after Bork complied with Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in 1973.
Bork’s recollection of his role in the Saturday Night Massacre that culminated in Cox’s firing is at the center of his slim memoir, “Saving Justice,” that is being published posthumously by Encounter Books. Bork died in December at age 85.
Bork writes that he didn’t know if Nixon actually, though mistakenly, believed he still had the political clout to get someone confirmed to the Supreme Court or was just trying to secure Bork’s continued loyalty as his administration crumbled in the Watergate scandal.
President Ronald Reagan nominated Bork to the high court in 1987. The nomination failed in the Senate.
Bork describes a surreal time in Washington as the Watergate scandal began to consume the government and the country, and a sense of paranoia prevailed.
Bork says that soon after his arrival in Washington in 1973, White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig tried to persuade him to resign as Solicitor General to become Nixon’s chief defense lawyer. Bork sought out his good friend Alexander Bickel to discuss the offer. Rather than talk inside Bork’s home in McLean, Virginia, they walked along a dark, semi-rural road so that no one would overhear them. Bork turned down the offer.
When Bork and Attorney General Eliot Richardson were called to the Oval Office to discuss plans to indict Vice President Spiro Agnew, the two men ducked into a restroom where Richardson turned on all the faucets so their conversation would not be picked up by electronic eavesdropping.
Most details about Bork’s role on the tumultuous evening of October 20, 1973, immortalized as the Saturday Night Massacre, are well known.
Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Cox over the prosecutor’s subpoena of White House tapes. Richardson resigned rather than carry out the order. The next in line, William Ruckelshaus, refused to fire Cox and was himself fired.
That left Bork, whose main job was arguing in front of the Supreme Court and who also was the third-ranking Justice Department official. Bork says his initial inclination was to fire Cox and then resign so as not to be seen as a White House toady. He says Richardson and Ruckelshaus encouraged him to stay on for the good of the Justice Department.
In the end, Bork served as acting Attorney General until January 1974, and stayed on as Solicitor General until January 1977. Nixon resigned in August 1974.
After Richardson and Ruckelshaus refused to carry out Nixon’s order, the White House sent a car to the Justice Department to fetch Bork.
He met the car outside the department and found Nixon lawyers Leonard Garment and Fred Buzhardt in the passenger seats. Bork says he joked that he felt like he was being taken for a ride, as in a scene from a gangster movie, but that no one else laughed.
Shortly after he sent Cox a two-paragraph letter, he was taken in to see Nixon. Bork says the resignation and firings should have been called “The Saturday Night Involuntary Manslaughter” because Nixon didn’t plan the episode, but blundered into it.
It was in that conversation that Bork says Nixon for the first and only time offered up the next Supreme Court seat.