If you think American politics have gotten nastier, crueler and more symbolic over the last 20 years, blame Ted Kennedy.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the borking of Judge Robert Bork, Ronald Reagan’s failed Supreme Court nominee. And it was Ted Kennedy’s bilious bugle blast that brought the man down. Almost immediately after Reagan nominated Bork, Kennedy pulled himself off his barstool and proclaimed:
“Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of the government ...”
Kennedy’s assault rallied left-wing interest groups to the anti-Bork banner for an unprecedented assault on a man liberal Supreme Court Justice Warren Berger dubbed the most qualified nominee he’d seen in his professional lifetime. As Gary McDowell noted recently in the Wall Street Journal, that time span included the careers of Benjamin Cardozo, Hugo Black and Felix Frankfurter.
Then-Judiciary Committee chairman Joseph Biden, Kennedy’s lieutenant in the assault, told the Philadelphia Inquirer not long before Bork was nominated: “Say the administration sends up Bork. I’d have to vote for him, and if the (liberal interest) groups tear me apart, that’s the medicine I’ll have to take.” But when it came time to take his medicine, he ran away like a Kennedy fleeing a car accident. The fact that Biden was about to run for president — for the first time — probably helped him rationalize his flight from honor.
By today’s standards, the slimy insinuations that Bork was a racist seem almost quaint. The investigations of his private life — Senate staffers pored over his video rental records in hope of finding something prurient — pale to the deepwater dredging of private lives today.
But that’s how precedents work. Small violations of principle tear the social fabric and the breach is pulled ever wider as more people march through the opening.
Ethan Bronner, author of “Battle for Justice: How the Bork Nomination Shook America,” recounts Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan’s response to the Kennedy speech. She acknowledged that the tirade was grotesquely unfair but that it “worked.” And, she continued, “The next time, the Right should answer in kind, matching tone for tone and blow for blow.”