Robert Bork Was a Terrible Human Being and No One Should Grieve His Passing

Robert Bork has died. Bork is best known in public memory for his failed Supreme Court nomination, which thankfully foundered on the rank extremism of his beliefs. And those beliefs were vile—not because of the stark principles that purportedly undergirded them, but because of the bigotry and contempt for modernity they masked. But more vile than his reactionary agenda was his hatred for democracy and his fealty to incipient tyranny, as expressed in his willingness to follow anti-Semitic madman Richard Nixon down the rabbit hole of criminality.

It was Bork who, as solicitor general of the United States in 1973, stepped up to the plate and carried out an order from Nixon that two of his superiors found too abjectly corrupt to obey. In what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox and his entire staff. The order came shortly after Cox had, over the objections of the president, subpoenaed a cache of presidential tape recordings. It was obvious to Richardson what was going on: The president of the United States feared that a federal prosecutor was close to obtaining evidence of his personal participation in a criminal conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws and illegally sabotage and surveil his political opponents. So he ordered Richardson to take care of the problem.

Richardson had a spine and character, so he refused, choosing to resign instead of help a liar and a cheat mop up his crimes. The order then fell to Richardson's deputy, William Ruckelshaus, who likewise summoned the courage to step down rather than fire Cox.

As solicitor general, Bork was third in line at the Justice Department, so the order fell to him. Sniveling bootlicker that he is, he carried it out. And surely Nixon knew that Bork would bend to his will—he had previously offered Bork the job of his chief defense counsel in the Watergate matter, a job that Bork later said he would have accepted if Nixon had allowed him to listen to the tapes. When he asked, Nixon's chief of staff Al Haig told him that the president would rather publicly burn the tapes and resign than let anybody, even his own attorney, listen to them.

Knowing that Nixon regarded those tapes as a red line, Bork fired Cox and his staff, and—in a startlingly dystopian move that is scarcely conceivable happening in the U.S. even today—saw to it that FBI agents sealed off his offices, as well as those of Richardson and Ruckelhaus, so that the president could lock down any evidence of his criminality they had uncovered. Bork would later describe his reasoning: "A junior officer in the government cannot face down the president and expect to get away with it." Which is a different way of saying that the president is immune from criminal investigation at the federal level. If the president does it, that means it's legal.

It's easy to second-guess difficult moral choices in hindsight. It's easy to condemn people for getting hard choices wrong. This isn't one of those cases. Two brave men had shown Bork the right path. He could have followed them and slept that night with a clean conscience. Instead, he chose corrupt power over justice. He chose criminality over law. He participated in a vast effort to obstruct a criminal investigation that thankfully failed despite his best efforts. That the man Richard Nixon chose as his defense attorney was ever even fleetingly considered for a seat on the highest court in the land, let alone nominated, is a cruel prank.

Robert Bork should be remembered as coward and sycophant. The fact that he persisted in public life, and continued to garner praise from conservative circles for his ideas, is an indictment of a corrupt and blind political culture.

The rest—the hatred of gay people, the rancid paranoia, the tribal resentments masquerading as principled stands—is garden-variety, Ann Coulter bullshit.

[Image via AP]