The Corner

Robert Bork R.I.P.

At one point in the 1960s, Bob Bork and the other conservative law professor in Yale Law School approached its director to argue for the appointment of a third conservative to the faculty. They were told that although their candidate had excellent credentials, the selection committee had decided with agonized regret not to appoint him. They were afraid that the 60-strong faculty might be “swamped” with conservatives.

That story, told by Bob, has made me laugh many times. On reflection, though, the director had a point. After all, Bob may have been one of only two conservatives he knew. If the third candidate had all the qualities displayed by Bob, the three of them might well have dominated the 57 varieties of Ivy League liberal alongside them.

Bob Bork was one of the best legal minds that America has ever produced, probably the best in the postwar world. At Yale he taught a high percentage of the nation’s leading lawyers, many of whom went on to become senior judges, Ivy League law professors, and even presidents (though Bob was fond of distinguishing between those he had taught and those, like the Clintons, who had been present in class while he gave lectures.) He was the good soldier who as solicitor general protected the Constitution while ensuring the continuance of government during the Watergate crisis. His scholarship transformed the legal treatment of competition and monopoly in the direction of economic freedom. And he was the most distinguished Supreme Court Justice never to hold that position.

Bob’s rejection for the Court following a demented left-wing campaign of political lies and personal slander was a shameful event for America. It combined the malicious dishonesty of leading Democrats, the unscrupulous leftist partisanship of the media, and the cowardice of some Republicans in the White House and the Senate. But it was, finally and ironically, an own goal for all of Bob’s enemies. Though unable to adjudicate constitutional cases, Bob became the legal commentator of first resort in public and media discussion of them. No legal luminary from the Left could match him in debate. And because he spoke and wrote with superb clarity and wit, he influenced public opinion on contentious constitutional issues far more than most Justices ever manage to do.

Like Mark, however, I’ll leave detailed discussion of Bob’s contribution to the law to such serious legal scholars as Andy McCarthy and Ed Whelan. Following the Supreme Court debacle, which made him famous and admired rather than exiling him to obscurity, Bob widened his public writing from the law to the wider cultural malaise of American society. He wrote several best-sellers, one of which, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, was excerpted in National Review. He and his beautiful wife, Mary Ellen, became friends of NR, frequent shipmates on NR cruises, and regular contributors and advisers to the magazine. And though Bob was pessimistic in principle — American popular culture doesn’t encourage optimism — he was great fun in practice: sharp in argument, clear of meaning, drily witty in delivery, and full of an avuncular charm. Any woman seated next to him at a dinner party had a highly enjoyable evening.

The lighter qualities in Bob made him a popular writer as well as an effective debater. His most popular article in NR was written for the special 1996 issue, How to Forget the Election, and it was a learned disquisition on the martini. Bob himself made an excellent martini. They were one of the high spots of his annual Christmas party. In fact he converted me to the martini and I repaid him somewhat by reintroducing him to the gimlet which, until his recent illness, we would drink to begin an evening at his favorite Italian restaurant in Washington.

So Bob knew what he was writing about, and it was a terrific piece, full of good jokes. I quote from memory: “American officers used to annoy their British colleagues in the later stages of the war by ordering a Montgomery: twelve to one.” As a result it was often reprinted and garnered a very large postbag. One letter Bob especially enjoyed; it was from a former U2 pilot who recounted how it was a matter of pride among his fellow-pilots to strip out their survival rations and replace them with a martini kit. It ended “. . . pour into a martini glass and wait for the Russians to arrive.”

A former Marine, Bob felt it showed the proper American spirit. As did Bob in every respect: brave, honorable, scrupulous, and patriotic, a good man, a great scholar, and a fast friend. R.I.P.


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