Magazine | January 28, 2013, Issue

Bork Vivant

Personal attacks and cultural collapse did not reduce his joie de vivre

Was Bob Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court finally undone by the fact that he had a beard? Not that his beard was the sole obstacle, of course. The vicious campaign of left-wing slander launched by Ted Kennedy was the overriding cause of the Senate’s rejection — either because the Democrats were galvanized by it or because the Republicans were intimidated by it. It should have gone nowhere. When compared with Bork’s stellar record as a law professor and federal law official, the Kennedy caricature was an absurdist fantasy.

But in the conventionally conformist America of the 1980s — America is more conformist today, but unconventionally so — a beard was a mark of radical social dissidence. Did it tip the balance? Did ordinary Americans think that a bearded appeals-court judge might be some kind of hippie and therefore not the solid, reliable conservative that the times required?

It’s possible. Some in the White House certainly thought so. He was advised by one of his “handlers” there to shave it off. But Bob was not the kind of judicial nominee whose overriding concern is with “image” and the urge to please. Both on style and on substance Bob was determined to be candidly his own man. As conservative legal writer Walter Olson has pointed out, however, Democratic senators with conservative constituents needed an excuse to vote against such a sterling nominee. Their belief in a “living Constitution” wouldn’t cut the mustard. As a result southern Democrats, with eager progressive northern support, muttered dark redneck suspicions about Bob’s “strange lifestyle,” his lack of religion and “morals,” and his beard.

The “strange lifestyle” Bob enjoyed turned out to mean his life as a Yale Law School professor. This line of attack would not have been entirely uncongenial to Bob. He was, after all, a traitor to his class of Ivy League law-school professors, and he was later amused by a bumper sticker that read: “Save America: Close Yale Law School.” But these were just opening shots. After a certain amount of huffing and puffing in the hearings, Senator Howell Heflin (D., Ala.) came to the nub: “Would you like to give us an explanation relative to the beard?”

Bob explained that he had spent a week with his family on a houseboat where the shape of the bathroom made shaving with his right hand impossible. After a week he had the beginnings of a red beard. His children liked it fine and, while it was red, he liked it fine too. Anyway, he had kept it down to the present.

Heflin conceded defeat: “There’s nothing wrong with it, because there are a lot of bearded voters out there that I don’t want to make mad.” But the damage had been done. The suspicion of radicalism had been planted. And Heflin felt free to vote against Bork in the Senate.

Bob kept the beard afterwards, maybe as an act of defiance toward the liberal establishment, more likely from habit. It still occasionally led to political misunderstandings. One day he was smoking quietly outside a bookstore when a lady came up and congratulated him on the great work he was doing. He was unaware of such work and alarmed by the thought.

“Your crusade,” the lady explained. “Your great campaign. Against smoking.” Then she noticed that Bob was smoking, looked startled and shocked, and stamped away to contemplate a world that was even wickeder than she had thought.

Bob was amused at the thought that the surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, another bearded national personality, was about to suffer a sharp decline in his personal approval rating as news of his hypocrisy spread across the land.

Was Bob’s beard an asset after his nomination, when he resigned from the appeals court and devoted himself to writing and speaking on legal and social questions? Well, as we have seen, it helped make him instantly recognizable everywhere. He had become one of those (they are few in number) to whom other people will spontaneously offer handshakes and words of praise or thanks, crossing restaurant floors or airport lounges to do so. Even his opponents knew, and some admitted, that he had been railroaded. Ordinary Americans did their best to make recompense; often, indeed, they went farther than Bob himself would have done.

#page#After he had given a speech to a full-house meeting at the Union League Club, a questioner rose and, quivering with indignation, asked at length how Ted Kennedy, how Joe Biden, how Arlen Specter could possibly have told such lies, have invented such absurdities, have committed such . . . the list of their crimes looked to be endless, all starting “How could they possibly . . .”

When at last his chance to reply arrived, Bob said simply: “It was probably a defect of character.” The release of laughter lasted for several minutes.

Bob never stopped producing creative and critical arguments within the law, as Matthew J. Franck demonstrates next door. Bob’s collection of legal writings, A Time to Speak, published in 2008, showed a lucid and principled consistency of ideas over several decades. It also showed a wit and crispness of phrase that could dispel a cloud of theory simply by describing it accurately. Thus his definition of the judicial philosophy under which we are now ruled: “If you want something passionately enough, it is guaranteed by the Constitution. No need to fiddle around gathering votes from recalcitrant citizens.”

Bob moved gradually into wider fields of social philosophy in the years beyond 1987. His 1996 book Slouching Towards Gomorrah was a vigorous polemic attacking radical liberalism as the purveyor of American decline. It’s not a hard case to make. But that is where his beard came in for the last time. Together with the book’s gloomy social vision, its pessimism of tone and argument, Bob’s beard was Exhibit A in the prosecution of him as an Old Testament prophet of the sourer kind. Both his friends (such as Princeton’s Robby George) and his enemies (the New York Times, passim) saw an Isaiah in him. Even his charming and saintly wife, Mary Ellen, doubtless provoked, was once heard wondering whether Biblical scholars knew how Mrs. Jeremiah felt.

The reality, however, is that Bob Bork was the most entertaining of companions — and one of the least censorious. His love and expertise in the matter of the Martini is well known because he wrote a superb and much-anthologized essay on it in NR’s 1996 election issue: “How to Forget the Election.” Almost the only thing that could put him in a bad humor was being kept from his legitimate tipple. Arriving late at a reception as other guests were filtering in to dinner, he asked the barman for one. The barman demurred, explaining that the bar was closing. Bob insisted. The barman was firm: He had been ordered to close.

“Don’t imagine for a moment,” responded Bob, “that the Nuremberg defense will work with me.”

Bob never confused religion with puritanism: He shared the view that puritans disapprove of fornication because it might lead to dancing. Later in life he converted to Catholicism and asked Kate O’Beirne and me to act as his godparents. It greatly impressed me to be the godfather of an Old Testament prophet, even if I doubted that I was quite the person to give him spiritual advice. Kate took it in her stride. When Bob said that, given the identity of his godparents, he felt he was becoming an Irish Catholic as much as a Roman one, Kate warned him to beware the sin of pride.

In reality the two main drivers of Bob’s conversion were reason — Catholicism is a highly rational religion and appealed to him intellectually as well as spiritually — and the example of Mary Ellen, who demonstrated daily that living a good life was perfectly compatible with living an enjoyable one.

Some years ago at a dinner party, when he was somewhat ruefully defending his Prophet status, Bob turned to Irving Kristol and asked, well, wasn’t it the case that we were witnessing the decline of Western civilization? Irving agreed that we were. Well . . . what then? Yes, responded Irving, but it takes a long time for a great civilization to collapse and one can have a very enjoyable life on the slide down.

And that’s what Bob (like Irving) in the end did. He never gave up resisting the decline of America and the West, but equally he never allowed the attacks of those he was rescuing to prevent him from having a good life and, almost to the end, a very enjoyable one too.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

Off the Cliff

For a few weeks around New Year’s Day, Washington, D.C., turned topsy-turvy. Well, topsy-turvier than usual. Conservative groups blasted a huge tax increase, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the size ...
Politics & Policy

Nixon at 100

As President Nixon sat in the Oval Office on Wednesday, June 2, 1971, the sun’s rays splashing brilliantly across the blue and gold carpet embroidered with the presidential seal, he ...
Politics & Policy

Bork Vivant

Was Bob Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court finally undone by the fact that he had a beard? Not that his beard was the sole obstacle, of course. The vicious ...

Features

Politics & Policy

Race and the Constitution

November’s electoral setbacks have prompted conservatives to reconsider their beliefs and rhetoric on a variety of issues. While they debate new ideas on immigration, taxes, and entitlements, they should not ...

Books, Arts & Manners

City Desk

Pigeon Watching

The city has been great for species other than man — roaches and rats; cats and dogs; once upon a time, horses. Another big winner in the lottery of urbanization ...
Politics & Policy

Nation-Building

The emergence and ultimate ascendance of the English-speaking peoples — the Anglosphere — is the salient fact of modern history. And the colonization of America is the turning point in ...
Politics & Policy

City of Lights

‘From the moment it began,” argues Michael Neiberg, a history professor at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., “the liberation of Paris was an almost mythical affair.” He is ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

Poetry

SCRAPS The hunt, for both, was empty as the light blue sky . . . the solitary gull and the eagle, at day’s end, find what little remains from the ice fisherman’s bucket; the gull landing ...
Happy Warrior

The Veil Descends

In the summer of 2010, mourners lined the streets of Wales’s capital city to pay tribute to a seven-year-old boy killed in a house fire. In fact, Yaseen Ali Ege ...
Politics & Policy

Letters

O’Neill Uncensored In his memoir In Confidence, former Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin wrote of an encounter he had had with House speaker Tip O’Neill: “O’Neill said no effort should be spared ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Egyptian prosecutors are investigating a popular television comedian for insulting the president. That could never happen here. When do popular television comedians insult the president? ‐ Chuck Hagel, the Republican ...
Athwart

Keep the Change

There are many compelling reasons to mint a trillion-dollar coin, including “plot device for Mission: Impossible 5.” The coin has been stolen, and nefarious enemies of the United States intend ...

Most Popular

Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More
Elections

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More
U.S.

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More