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.