NR Digital

Bork Vivant

by John O’Sullivan
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.

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.

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