Griffin B. Bell, the most controversial of President-elect Jimmy Carter's Cabinet choices, described himself yesterday as a moderate who would defend the rights of all Americans if he is confirmed as Attorney General.
Testifying at a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, Bell, 58, was questioned sharply about his positions on civil rights when he was an Atlanta lawyer and a federal appeals court judge.
Liberal members of the committee put particular emphasis on questioning Bell about his role as a legal adviser to former Georgia Gov. Ernest Vandiver's "massive resistance" to school desegregation during the 1950s and his 1970 recommendation of G. Harrold Carswell for the Supreme Court.
Bell replied that, in all matters involving civil rights, he had tried to act as "a force for moderation." That applied, he said, both to the advice he given Vandiver and to his later decisions while serving as a federal judge.
"I never professed to be an activist. I never professed to be an extreme liberal," he said. "I am a moderate."
Bell's nomination for the highest legal post in the administration has stirred heavy opposition from a number of civil rights and liberal groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Americans for Democratic Action, the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Organization for Women.
However, despite the opposition, he is expected to win the endorsement of the Judiciary Committee and, following Carter's inauguration, confirmation by the full Senate.
As part of his effort to assuage the opposition, Bell has promised to give an unspecifield number of key Justice Department jobs to blacks. During the questioning yesterday, he confirmed that he has selected Wade H. McCree Jr., 56, a black and a judge of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, as solicitor general, the department's third-ranking position.
Although the appointment of McCree had been expected, Bell initially was reluctant to disclose his choice because McCree has not yet resigned from the federal judiciary.
He finally confirmed that McCree had accepted, after Sen. William L. Scott (R-Va.) pointedly asked the "color" of his choice for solicitor general and said it was an important point in view of the questions about Bell's civil rights record.
In annoucing the name, Bell called McCree, who lives in Detroit, "one of the most distinguished jurists in American." The solicitor general has charge of arguing all appeals in the federal courts involving the government.
The hearing on Bell, which drew an audience that spilled over into the corridor of a Senate office building, is expected to continue for several more days.
Several Senate sources said that Bell is being "Hickeled" by his liberal interrogators. By that, they mean that the confirmation hearings are being used not to stop Bell's nomination but to "educate" him about the concerns of the civil rights bloc and obtain his commitment to vigorous civil rights enforcement.
The term "Hickeled" refers to the tactics used un 1969 during the confirmations hearings on Walter Hickel, President Nixon's first Interior Secretary. Hickel had been regarded with suspicion by environmental groups, and the Senate Interior Committee used the hearings to force him to support some liberal environmental policies.
This tactic seemed especially evident in the way Bell was questioned about his recommendation of Carswell, who was nominated for the Supreme Court by NixoN. The nomination was turned down by the Senate after a bitter controversy about Carswell's legal qualifications and charges that he was a racist.
Bell said that he and Carswell were law school classmates and friends who had served together on the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. At different times, Bell added, he had recommeded Carswell for appointment to a federal district judgeship, then to the circuit court and finally to the Supreme Court.
"It is just part of my record that I will have to stand on," Bell said.
Sen Birch Bayh (D-Ind), a leader of the 1970 fight against Carswell, asked Bell if he would recommendM in his capacity as Attorney General, the Carter appoint someone who had made racist statements to a federal judgeship.
Bell replied: "I'd want to study him to see if he had charged his views. If it was something that had been done 20 years before, well, we do have redemption in this country."
He said of Carswell, "He was from the South, and there was some feeling among the judges in our circuit about having one of our own on the Supreme Court."
Bell also said that there were things about Carswell's record and attitudes that he did not know at the time he made the recommendation. But he added:
"I have decided that I'm not going to repudiate Judge Carswell in terms of what I shall then. I didn't know all the things that have happened since; and if it were something to be done again. I'd have to think about what I'd do."
Bell also were questioned extensively anout his service as Vandiver's chief of staff from 1959 until he was appointed to the federal appeals court by President Kennedy in 1961. Opponents of Bell nomination charge that Bell was instrumental in drafting state legislation aimed at thwarting Supreme Court desegregation decisions and preventing blacks from entering the University of Georgia.
In relply, Bell said that the chief-of-staff designation was an honorary title without any power in the state government and that his advice to Vandiver had been legal rather than political.
His main interests, he said, were keeping the Georgia schools open and preventing civil unrest; and, he added, he had counseled Vandiver that the schools would have to be desegregated.
To achieve this, Bell said , he promoted a number of measures designed to enable the governor to move gradually away from his "massive resistance" stance and toward school integration.
Chief among them, Bell added, was a commission that held public hearings throughout the state "to let the people speak to their elected representatives. We were trying to change the customs of centuries, and I though if the people could somehow make their voices heard, it would save the schools."
In his later service as judge, Bell maintained, he had applied desegregation laws " within an even hand" and had helped to desegregate 141 schools in the South. He added with emphasis: "I would have confidence in a judge who desegregated 141 schools."