The last time I talked to him was the day after the vice-presidential debate. Biden had invoked his name as a bogeyman. He tried to scare people with the (great) name Bork: “Just ask yourself: With Robert Bork being the chief adviser on the Court for Mr. Romney, who do you think he’s likely to appoint?” etc.
Biden had been abusing Bob Bork for a long time. He was chairman of the Judiciary Committee when President Reagan nominated Bob for the Court. And he duly acted as smearer-in-chief. It was one of the most disgraceful performances in the history of the Senate, I believe. Even some on the left came to have some guilt about the “borking.”
When Biden invoked Bob’s name in that debate, I felt my anger rise, for I knew that Bob was so sick, he could not defend himself — and here was this SOB talking about him in front of the entire country.
I wrote a long critique of the debate, ending with a comment on Bob. The last few sentences of that comment were, “Joe Biden isn’t fit to tie the shoelaces of that magnificent man. Not because Bork’s IQ is about a million points higher. No, it’s a matter of character.”
I called the Borks the next day, because I was afraid Bob might have watched the debate and been upset by Biden. I read Mary Ellen (Mrs. Bork) what I wrote. Then she held the phone up to Bob’s ear. I talked with Bob for a while, and then was saying goodbye. But Mary Ellen said, “Wait, don’t you want to read to Bob what you wrote?” I wasn’t going to, because I didn’t want to upset him. But I did read my comment to him — and he seemed to take pleasure in it.
Bob was one of the great storytellers. I was always pumping him for stories about the great and the good he had known. One of his law teachers was Ed Levi, a thrilling lecturer, by all accounts — including Bob’s. At the end of one term, the students threw their books into the air, in exultant appreciation. Years later, if I remember correctly — and I think I do — Levi told Bob, “I was a charlatan, you know.”
Once, Bob illustrated the difference between schools now and schools then. When he was in high school, I believe, he was sent to the principal’s office for saying “Thanks a lot” in a sarcastic tone of voice. I got to know that tone very well — and loved it.
Bob was a Marine Corps lawyer. He once made this observation: “If I were a defendant and were innocent, I would want to be tried in a military court, rather than a civilian court. If guilty, a civilian, rather than a military.”
He said of Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham, Jerry Brown, Gary Hart, and others, “They weren’t my students. They were in the room. But they weren’t my students.”
Michael Mukasey (a genuine student) told me this story: One day, Jeff Greenfield was making some argument in class. Professor Bork said, “Mr. Greenfield, where did you get such notions?” Greenfield quipped, “I had you for Constitutional Law.” The classroom exploded in laughter. Bork reeled against the blackboard in mock horror. When the laughter subsided, he said, “I knew I was being had.” Bigger laughter.
He was one of the wittiest men ever, one of the smartest and best educated, one of the wisest, one of the most humane — and one of the most stoic, because he endured much hell, with grace. His performance in the 1987 hearings was superb. Let me quote from a piece I wrote in 2001 about Patrick Leahy:
. . . he was a major tormentor of Robert Bork during those awful hearings . . . In fact, he was responsible for one of their moments of highest drama. He scolded Bork for doing insufficient charity work while a professor at Yale, and recited the fees he earned as an outside consultant during the years 1979 to 1981. Responded Bork, “Those are the only years I ever made any money in consulting.” He continued, emotional, “There was a reason to get money, and I don’t want to get into it here.” Leahy acknowledged that the judge had his reasons. Then Sen. Gordon Humphrey, a Republican, broke in, saying, “Judge Bork, this is a very personal question, and if you prefer not to answer it, by all means do not — but were those years [ones that] coincided with heavy medical bills in your family?” Bork spoke one syllable: “Yeah.” The bills to which Humphrey had referred were for Bork’s first wife, Claire, who died in December 1980. This was not only a moment of high drama, but one that turned the stomachs of many of those watching.
Bob Bork would have been a great Supreme Court justice, and the American people did themselves a terrible disservice by electing to the Senate the kind of men who could not abide him on the Court. But he lived a life of continual fruitfulness. He was a teacher to us all. I loved him, and am grateful to have known him.