The Law

12.21.12

Bork and Watergate: A Tale of Duty

Stanley Kutler defends Robert Bork's involvement in the Watergate scandal.

Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to dismiss Cox. The special prosecutor had sought a subpoena for Nixon’s Oval Office tapes, and at the moment the matter was pending at the appellate level. More than anyone else, Nixon realized the precariousness of his position, and he desperately sought to moot the matter by abolishing the special prosecutor’s office. Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, informed Solicitor General Bork, then third in command at the Justice Department, that they would resign rather than execute the president’s order. Bork likewise announced his intention to resign, but Richardson urged him to remain at his post and carry out Nixon’s order; Richardson feared that the chain of command would be broken and that the White House would send one of its lawyers to head the department and fire Cox. Thus, the event that became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”

On Saturday, traditionaly a downtime in the news cycle, Richardson, Ruckelshaus and Bork walked to the Justice Department auditorium for a televised news conference. On the way, Bork claimed that he had asked Richardson to explain the decision to have Bork execute the president’s order. According to Bork, Richardson agreed to do so but he never did. Subsequently, Richardson acknowledged and confirmed Bork’s version of events. When I asked Richardson why he never defended Bork at the time—or later—his answer was classic Washington: “No one asked me.”