Will: When Washington was really grim
"When I first met Richard Nixon," Robert Bork says in the book he completed a few weeks before his death in December, "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 his red beard emblematic of Ivy League left-wingery. Nixon probably thought the barbarians were within the gates.
They were. On Nixon's staff.
"Saving Justice: Watergate, the Saturday Night Massacre, and Other Adventures of a Solicitor General," Bork's recounting of events of 40 years ago, is an antidote to today's tendency to think that things in Washington have never been worse. Bork became Nixon's solicitor general in June 1973, 12 months after the Watergate burglary. Then Bork, fresh from Yale Law School's 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 the summer of 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, Nixon's chief of staff, Al Haig, asked Bork to become Nixon's chief defense counsel concerning Watergate matters, and told Bork that Agnew was under criminal investigation for accepting bribes while governor of Maryland, payments that continued while he was vice president.
While pondering Haig's offer, Bork sought the advice of a Yale colleague, with whom he spoke on a "dark, semi-rural road" in suburban Virginia: "It's an indication of the paranoia of the time that I really wanted to be someplace where it was impossible to be overheard." 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, Oklahoma's Carl Albert, who the year before may have been intoxicated when he drove his car into some other cars outside Washington's Zebra Room saloon.
Agnew, says Bork, was "never one to miss out on making a little extra cash," so he said that if he was forced out of the vice presidency "he hoped to remain in the administration a few more months to ensure his pension would vest." 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 Nixon's 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 Harding's unsavory administration. The field's 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.
George Will's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.