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Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee: The Constitution and the savage attack that made his name a verb.
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By 1982 Ronald Reagan had appointed Bork to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Where he was toiling away with his well-established brilliance when Reagan appointed him to the Supreme Court.
The Reagan White House was, that summer of 1987, thoroughly unprepared for what was to unfold.
While it’s hard to conceive today, once upon a time nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court were respectful, not to mention non-eventful, happenings. Some would-be Justices would endure confirmation hearings that lasted mere minutes as Senators respectfully, if not worshipfully, gave them a pass-through to a seat on the nation’s highest court.
The Reagan staff, at that point led by White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker, himself a former Senator, Senate Republican Leader, and son-in-law of a Senate Republican Leader (Everett Dirksen), was if nothing else looking forward to one of these respectful Senate performances by his former colleagues.
That changed — indeed a lot in the political world changed — when Ted Kennedy rose that fateful July day and let loose with a speech that was instantly tagged as “Robert Bork’s America.”
What was launched by Kennedy that day was but the beginning of a full-on attack on Judge Bork that was orchestrated by all manner of Washington special interest groups. Sitting in the White House, reading a massively thick briefing book on the Judge’s opinions, it finally dawned that what was in the book was absolutely, totally irrelevant. These groups had been secretly planning this assault long before Reagan made his announcement. Bork was such a large legal figure they correctly assumed he would be Reagan’s choice — and they were right.
The Kennedy statement was specifically designed to be stark — to act as a fire bell in the night for liberal interest groups. It worked.
Suddenly the confirmation process was a cockpit of personal vitriol and scurrilous attack. Instead of a respectful process, groups like People for the American Way, the AFL-CIO, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and more… much more…. going after a Supreme Court nominee in a stunningly ferocious fashion.
Sitting inside the White House, my colleagues and I listened agog to tales of liberal investigators visiting Judge Bork’s neighborhood video store to surreptitiously get a list of his video rentals. Looking, presumably, for pornography. To their vast disappointment they discovered the Judge had a taste for Fred Astaire movies. On another occasion we discovered a paramedic had been tracked down to learn why he was summoned to the Bork household. Only to find there had once been a fall of some sort — not, as they were hoping to find, that the Judge was a heavy drinker and had fallen as a result. There was more — he was of course now belatedly pilloried for firing Archibald Cox — and it was all the more remarkable coming as it was from people who presented themselves as strong supporters of a right to privacy and civil liberties.
On another occasion I received a call from my parents. A letter from the national denomination of our church — the United Church of Christ — had been mailed to our home in Pennsylvania. The letter was a slashing attack on Judge Bork, portraying him as a racist thug. As it happened, I had been home the previous weekend and been in church. I make it a practice not to use my church as a political pulpit — we have members of all political stripes and they are there to worship Christ not politics. But of course they knew I was working for President Reagan — many (but not all) had voted for him. One such member, an elderly man, quietly took me aside to tell me how much he liked Judge Bork. While I hadn’t thought about it much at the time, when the letter arrived at our home I realized the national church staff had — without consulting a single member in our church, and using in part this man’s collection money without telling him — financed and mailed this outrageous letter.
I contacted the then-president of the UCC and expressed my concern. Shortly afterward I was seated across from a UCC national staffer at a Washington restaurant for a wonderful conversation. While minds on Judge Bork were not changed, never again were church resources used in political fights over Supreme Court Justices.
Judge Bork was eventually defeated because of all of this. But as many liberals have had cause to reflect since, the Bork hearings poisoned the well not only for Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court justices but for confirmation hearings period.
As time moved on, the fights moved from the Supreme Court on down to the Court of Appeals and even the occasional District Court nominee. It is fair to say that other, non-judicial nominees were dragged into this process.
A process that wound up being labeled in short-hand with Judge Bork’s own name. In today’s world of Washington, when stiff opposition to a nominee or a public figure’s possible appointment arises it is said that the nominee is being “borked.” The term eventually made it into the dictionary. Webster’s defines it this way:
To attack a candidate or public figure systematically, esp. in the media.
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