I have to admit that when I saw the headline “The Ugliness Started with Bork” over an op-ed column by Joe Nocera in The New York Times, I reckoned it would be yet another chapter in the long-running left-liberal campaign to demonize the great jurist Robert H. Bork. I was wrong. Today — October 23 — is the 24th anniversary of the Senate’s shameful vote against Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Nocera wrote, if not to apologize, exactly, then at least to acknowledge that the poisonous campaign to discredit Bork — unprecedented in its nastiness — was “the beginning of the end of civil discourse in politics.”
That’s probably correct. And while politics by its very nature is a partisan business that elicits strong emotions, and strong rhetoric to match, the campaign against Judge Bork was unparalleled in its ferocity and — something Nocera touches upon but gingerly — patent mendacity. Supreme Court nominees had been voted down before (and since). But had any previous candidate with what Nocera right calls Bork’s scholarly “pedigree” and “intellectual fire power” ever been voted down? After all, at the time he was tapped by Reagan, Bork had been a professor of law at Yale, former solicitor general of the United States, and a federal appeals court judge. He was — and is — also a prominent and articulate legal scholar, arguing forcefully for the doctrine of “original intent,” i.e., that a judge’s primary task is to discern the law in the light of the Constitution.
Democrats, as Nocera acknowledges, recognized that were they to follow the usual Senate procedure in reviewing Bork’s nomination, he would almost certainly have been appointed to the Supreme Court. Instead, they knowingly endeavored to besmirch his reputation and record, portraying him not as a serious and thoughtful legal scholar (which he was), but as “a right-wing loony.” Nocera recalls an ad that “claimed, absurdly, that Bork wanted to give ‘women workers the choice between sterilization and their job.’” But that was just business as usual for the hyenas — including many at The New York Times — who poured through Judge Bork’s trash and movie rental receipts in the hope of discovering something embarrassing.