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.”
The following year, George H.W. Bush ran a tough race against Michael Dukakis. The fact that a race against the Muppet-robot former governor of Massachusetts needed to be tough beggars the imagination today, but Bush actually started out 17 points behind Dukakis. Liberals thought Bush was too tough on poor Dukakis, who seemed to be doing much of the heavy lifting in his own destruction anyway, what with his disastrous tank ride and nonchalant response to the hypothetical rape and murder of his wife.
But Republicans believed that they had to match the Democrats “tone for tone, blow for blow.”
In 1991, Bush nominated Clarence Thomas for the high court, and Democrats attempted to replay their Bork triumph and likewise destroy Thomas. But Thomas would not be goaded into the meat grinder. This remains the outrage according to liberals today: He refused to go quietly into the night.
In 1992, Bill Clinton introduced the phrase “the politics of personal destruction” to the lexicon. Clinton used it preemptively to delegitimize scrutiny of his private life. After all, the accusations against Thomas — he allegedly asked a subordinate out on a date; he joked about a pubic hair — were of Disneyesque innocence compared with almost every Saturday night in Little Rock for Clinton. In a world where the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill standard was held consistently, Clinton would not have been qualified to be a tollbooth attendant on the New Jersey Turnpike. Hence, he called for an end to the ratcheting up of the gotcha game before he himself got got.
But it didn’t work. His private life spilled out for public viewing, steaming in the cold air.
Liberals were outraged, sometimes fairly, often not. But they felt they needed to respond tone for tone, blow for blow. They scoured the private lives of Clinton’s “tormentors” for dirt, and they often found it.
There’s more, of course. The Florida recount saw Republicans feeling justified to do whatever it took — even fight like Democrats — to win. The recount, in turn, laid the foundation of bitterness and bile that fuels the omnivorous banshees of the “netroots,” who proudly proclaim they care only about winning and being as ruthless as they imagine the Republicans are.
But at this point you know the story. In Ted Kennedy’s America, it’s blow for blow and eye for eye now, and everyone is blind to how we got here.