In the book he completed a few weeks before his death, Robert Bork recalls his first meeting with President Nixon: I could see in his expression the conviction that someone had blundered badly. With the dry wit that, together with his mastery of the dry martini, made him delightful company, Bork says the president, who almost visibly recoiled, evidently considered Borks red beard emblematic of Ivy League left-wingery.
By GEORGE WILL
The Washington Post
Nixon probably thought the barbarians were within the gates. They were. On Nixons staff.
Saving Justice: Watergate, the Saturday Night Massacre, and Other Adventures of a Solicitor General, Borks recounting of events of 40 years ago, is an antidote to todays tendency to think things in Washington have never been worse.
Bork became Nixons solicitor general in June 1973, 12 months after the Watergate burglary. Then Bork, fresh from Yale Law Schools faculty, met Nixon: Apparently unsure if he was really dealing with a conservative Ivy League professor, he assured me his conservatism was something of a pose to keep others from moving too far left. Conservatives knew this.
In 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew asked to see Bork, but really had nothing of substance to say. Bork would soon learn why Agnew wanted to establish a relationship. A few weeks later, Nixons chief of staff, Al Haig, asked Bork to become Nixons chief defense counsel on Watergate matters, and told Bork that Agnew was under investigation for accepting bribes while governor of Maryland, payments that continued while he was vice president.
By September, Bork and a few others knew the nation faced a novel possibility a double impeachment, which could elevate to the presidency the speaker of the House, Oklahomas Carl Albert, who the year before may have been intoxicated when he drove his car into some other vehicles outside Washingtons Zebra Room saloon.
When Bork and Attorney General Elliot Richardson were being taken into the Oval Office to explain to Nixon why Agnew should be indicted, Richardson got Bork into a White House restroom to talk. He turned on the faucets in the expectation that the noise of running water would make our conversation inaudible if anybody was eavesdropping electronically.
Claiming vice presidential immunity, Agnew said he could not be indicted until he had been impeached and removed from office.
Bork and others rejected this because the vice presidency is not sufficiently central to governance. Yet in those fevered days, a Justice Department memo suggested that even a president could be indicted before impeachment because with the aid of modern technology he could run the executive branch from jail. But, the memo said measuredly, this might be beneath the dignity of the office.
On an October Saturday, when Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor, Richardson and his deputy resigned, urging Bork to execute Nixons lawful order, which he did. By the two resignations, he became acting attorney general, in which capacity he protected the ongoing investigation of Nixon.
At work the Sunday morning after the Saturday Night Massacre, his first official act as attorney general was to sign lease renewal forms for an oil field in Natrona County, Wyo., that became famous during President Warren Hardings unsavory administration. The fields name Teapot Dome was shorthand for political corruption, until displaced by Watergate.
Watergate now seems as distant as the Punic Wars. Nixon, born 100 years ago in January, is remembered for large diplomatic as well as criminal deeds.
Agnew is deservedly forgotten. Bork deserves to be remembered by a grateful nation for the services he rendered in preventing disarray in the Justice Department at a moment of unprecedented assault on the rule of law and for facilitating the removal of a president during Washington days that were darker than most people today can imagine. His book confirms the axiom that our ignorance of history makes us libel our own times.
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