Politics & Policy

The Bork Disaster

EDITOR’S NOTE:National Review is celebrating its 50th anniversary this week. Throughout the week, NRO will be running pieces from the archives to help take a trip down memory lane. This piece appeared in the Nov 6, 1987, issue of National Review.

It was a political catastrophe, and there is a lot to say about the Bork affair. No doubt you have already said it yourself.

#ad#The campaign against him was the most disreputable within living political memory, Judge Bork portrayed as “frightening,’ an avatar of coat-hanger abortions, segregaged lunch counters, and storm troopers kicking in the door at night. After the nomination by the President, the tone of the campaign was set immediately by such guardians of public virtue as Senators Biden and Kennedy.

The entire Left came together in unity against Bork, an impressive display, in its ugly, demagogic way: from the respectable Left (New York Times, Washington Post) to the far end, across the board: Ralph Nader, Planned Parenthood, the AFL-CIO, the ACLU, the NAACP, NOW, the gay rights people and the organized artists, The Nation, People for the American Way, Joanne Woodward and Ed Asner, the Democratic Socialists of America, and the People’s Daily World. Was Daniel Ortega against Bork? Only Angela Davis was not heard from on the issue.

All of which suggests that since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 the political Right has grown complacent. The Left lives, its infrastructure in place. When it came together against Bork, it put more than ten million dollars on the line and bent the U.S. Senate to its will. When you carry 49 states, you think you have the political edge: an understandable illusion. But politics is ultimately local, with most Senate contests decided in the five percentage-point range. There the intensity factor is decisive. The Left has demonstrated dramatically that it has the marginal electoral power to pull the plug on wavering Democratic politicians, no matter how nominally moderate or even conservative they may be. Without that kind of power, can you imagine a relatively sober citizen like Senator Bill Bradley coming out against a perfectly respectable nominee like Bork? Or–can you believe it–Al D’Amato, who owes his election to the Conservative Party of New York, dithering on whether he could back Bork?

On the pro-Bork side, there is plenty of blame to go around, not excluding Bork himself. Like it or not, this is a television age, and on TV he flunked. The legal precision appropriate to a law school seminar might open well in New Haven, but it bombed in the big time, never mind that Bork was intellectually the winner on every point. But this was not a PhD oral examination. It was political theater, and anyone who comes forward had better understand that. As Joe Biden so aphoristically put it, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

The White House was out to lunch. Where were the high-powered nationwide TV shows, one of them featuring six big-city police chiefs supporting Bork on the crime issue? The TV spots, with one woman after another saying, “I was mugged three times last week. I support Bob Bork. The most important woman’s right is the right to walk safely down the street’? Instead the Republican master strategists let themselves be trapped in absurd debates about whether, under Emperor Bork, you would be able to buy condoms in Connecticut. The Republican National Committee is suffocating in cash. Why didn’t the Republicans match the Left? Answer: because they are inert, and lacking in intelligent direction.

There are other good Supreme Court possibilities. But it’s not morning in America, baby. It’s hard-ball time.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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