National Review / Digital
Bork Vivant
Personal attacks and cultural collapse did not reduce his joie de vivre


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.

January 28, 2013    |     Volume LXV, No. 1

  • Too many Republicans wanted us to take the plunge.
  • A lesson learned, unlearned, relearned, painfully.
  • Republicans should reclaim the 37th president.
  • Our mental-health system is failing those most at risk.
  • How Robert H. Bork galvanized a movement.
  • Personal attacks and cultural collapse did not reduce his joie de vivre.
Books, Arts & Manners
  • Daniel Johnson reviews The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600–1675, by Bernard Bailyn.
  • Elizabeth Powers reviews John Keats: A New Life, by Nicholas Roe.
  • Andrew Roberts reviews The Blood of Free Men: The Liberation of Paris, 1944, by Michael Neiberg.
  • Thomas S. Hibbs reviews The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV, by Paul A. Cantor.
  • Ross Douthat reviews Django Unchained.
  • Richard Brookhiser on the urban pigeon.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .