WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork today denied acting illegally when he fired special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox 14 years ago and said "I did my utmost" to make sure the investigation into the Nixon Administration scandal went forward.
"My moral and professional lives were on the line if something happened to those investigations," Bork said as he recalled the dramatic events of 1973 on the second day of his nationally televised confirmation hearings.
Bork also disclosed that he had rebuffed a request from the White House to resign as a top Justice Department official during Watergate and take over as President Richard M. Nixon's chief defense lawyer. He said he had convinced then-White House Chief of Staff Alexander M. Haig that "I was not the right man for the job,"--and that Nixon had told him he harbored no hard feelings about the rejection.
Bork also sought to reassure Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) that he is not antagonistic to the rights of women. "As solicitor general I argued positions for the protection of women broader than the Supreme Court would accept," Bork said.
"There is no reason in my record to believe I have any problem protecting women," he told DeConcini, one of three key swing votes on the committee.
Bork also said, as he did on Tuesday, that he has no intention of using a Supreme Court seat to impose social, economic or political views that are based on his personal beliefs. "My policy views do not determine my statutory or constitutional views," he said.
For a time today, it seemed like the Senate Judiciary Committee and Bork had entered a time warp, as the judge fielded questions in the same Senate Caucus Room where the Watergate hearings were conducted in 1973--and about the same events.
The 60-year-old jurist stiffly turned aside a suggestion from Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) that he had acted illegally in firing Cox in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. "No, I don't think it was, senator," Bork said.
He said he had fired Cox because Nixon had given him a legal order to do so. Even then, Bork added, he had fully intended for the Watergate investigation to go forward.
He said he believed at the time that was what the public wanted. "There was never any doubt in my mind that that's exactly what I wanted," said Bork, who was the No. 3 official in the Justice Department at the time.
"And, in fact, I did my utmost to keep that special prosecutor force intact and going forward."
Nixon ordered Bork to fire Cox after Atty. Gen. Elliot Richardson and Deputy Atty. Gen. William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than do so.
Bork recalled a meeting with Richardson and Ruckelshaus at which both men said they could not fire Cox. Bork described realizing at the time that the request would then fall to him.
"It hit me like a ton of bricks," he said.
He said his first instinct was to fire Cox and then resign immediately. "I didn't want to be regarded as an apparatchik, an organization man who does whatever the organization wanted."
But he said Richardson and Ruckelshaus persuaded him to stay because the Justice Department needed continuity in leadership.