MCLEAN, Va. -- Robert H. Bork, who stepped in to fire the Watergate prosecutor at Richard Nixon's behest and whose failed 1987 nomination to the Supreme Court helped draw the modern boundaries of cultural fights over abortion, civil rights and other issues, has died. He was 85.
Son Robert H. Bork Jr. confirmed his father died Wednesday at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va. The son said Bork died from complications of heart ailments.
Brilliant, blunt, and piercingly witty, Robert Heron Bork had a long career in the law that took him from respected academic to a totem of conservative grievance.
Along the way, Bork was accused of being a partisan hatchet man for Nixon when, as the third-ranking official at the Justice Department he fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in the Saturday Night Massacre of 1973. Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned rather than fire Cox. The next in line, William Ruckelshaus, refused to fire Cox and was himself fired.
Bork's drubbing during his Senate nomination hearings made him a hero to the right and a rallying cry for younger conservatives.
The Senate experience embittered Bork and hardened many of his conservative positions, even as it gave him prominence as an author and long popularity on the conservative speaking circuit.
"Robert Bork was a giant, a brilliant and fearless legal scholar, and a gentleman whose incredible wit and erudition made him a wonderful Hudson colleague,'' said Kenneth Weinstein, head of the Washington think-tank Hudson Institute where Bork was a distinguished fellow.
Conservative legal scholars lauded Bork as an intellectual leader of the move toward originalism, which calls for the Constitution to be interpreted as it was envisioned by the Founding Fathers. Eugene Meyer, president of The Federalist Society, where Bork co-chaired the board of visitors, described Bork as "a truly kind and decent man'' who helped mentor a generation of conservative law professors and practitioners.
Known before his Supreme Court nomination as one of the foremost national experts on antitrust law, Bork became much more widely known as a conservative cultural critic in the years that followed.
His 1996 book, "Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline,'' was an acid indictment of what Bork viewed as the crumbling ethics of modern society and the morally bankrupt politics of the left.
"Opportunities for teen-agers to engage in sex are ... more frequent than previously; much of it takes place in homes that are now empty because the mothers are working,'' Bork wrote then. "The modern liberal devotion to sex education is an ideological commitment rather than a policy of prudence.''
Bork, known until his death as "Judge Bork,'' served a relatively short tenure on the bench. He was a federal judge on the nation's most prestigious appellate panel, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, from 1982 until 1988, when he resigned in the wake of the bitter Supreme Court nomination fight.
Earlier, Bork had been a private attorney, Yale Law School professor and a Republican political appointee.
At Yale, two of his constitutional law students were Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham.
"I no longer say they were students,'' Bork joked long afterward. "I say they were in the room.''
Nixon named Bork as solicitor general, the administration's advocate before the Supreme Court, in January, 1973.
Bork served as acting attorney general after Richardson's resignation, then returned to the solicitor general's job until 1977, far outlasting the Nixon administration.
Long mentioned as a possible Supreme Court nominee, Bork got his chance toward the end of Ronald Reagan's second term. He was nominated July 1, 1987, to fill the seat vacated by Justice Lewis F. Powell.