[See the update at the end of this piece]
I am deeply grateful for the contribution that Ted Kennedy, who died last night, made to my education. Until Kennedy delivered his intemperate tirade against Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court in the summer of 1987, I hadn’t known that a United States Senator could brazenly lie to his colleagues and the American people and get away with it. I’m not talking about little fibs, or broken promises, or private dissimulations: all that I took as standard operating procedure in a fallen world. No, Ted Kennedy raised — that is to say, he dramatically lowered — the standard by standing up on the floor of the Senate and emitting one lie after the next against one of the finest legal minds America has ever produced. “Robert Bork’s America,” he said
is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit down at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is often the only protector of the individual rights that are the heart of democracy.
A breathtaking congeries of falsehoods that, were they not protected by the prerogatives of senatorial privilege, would have taken a conspicuous place in the annals of malicious slander and character assassination. In The Tempting of America, Judge Bork recounts his incredulity at this tissue of malign fabrication. “It had simply never occurred to me that anybody could misrepresent my career and views as Kennedy did.” At the time, he notes, many people thought that Kennedy had blundered by emitting so flagrant, and flagrantly untrue, an attack. They were wrong. His “calculated personal assault, . . . more violent than any against a judicial nominee in our country’s history,” did the job (with a little help from Joe Biden and Arlen Specter). Not only was Kennedy instrumental in preventing a great jurist from taking his place on the Supreme Court, he also contributed immeasurably to the cheapening of American political discourse. The fact that “bork” has entered the language as a transitive verb is, I’ve always thought, a final unfairness. Really, the verb should involve the name “Kennedy.” Less staccato, I admit, but in that scenario, the malfeasance was practiced not by Robert Bork but Edward Kennedy and his cronies.