Almost as soon as Bork’s nomination was announced, Sen. Ted Kennedy attacked. “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions,” he thundered on the Senate floor. “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 could be censored at the whim of government.” The attack was so laughably inaccurate that most conservatives dismissed it out of hand; it was as if Kennedy had earnestly insisted the Earth was flat.
But after a bruising battle, the Senate voted against Bork’s nomination.
Then, in 1991, Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court became a flash point. But this time conservatives were ready. When the left attempted to destroy his character, Thomas and his allies fought back, and Thomas was eventually confirmed.
The difference is critical. The right’s approach in the Thomas hearings wasn’t an attack on the left, it was a response to attacks from the left. If we want to end this cycle, we’ll need liberal senators to start considering a nominee’s qualifications instead of his politics.
This happened not so long ago. Antonin Scalia, now the controversial face of Court conservativism, was confirmed 98-0. Liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed 97-3. In both cases, dozens of senators who disagreed with the nominee on politics agreed the nominee was well-qualified and voted to confirm.
But we can’t return to those days unless the left is willing to. It’s impossible for the right to stop defending its nominees until the left stops trying to destroy them. For now, then, we need to focus on baby steps. After all, we’ve only just recently buried another relic of the Baby Boomer generation: Watergate.
Generations of journalism students were taught that Watergate represented the very height of our profession. They liked it so much they stuck a “gate” on almost every subsequent scandal: “Whitewatergate,” “Chinagate,” “Monicagate.” But it turns out the story wasn’t the result of dedicated reporting or selfless public service.
Mark Felt was a high-level FBI man, and he leaked the story because he was passed over for promotion. Yawn. Garden-variety Washington story. It’s just that this time, the “boss” Felt set out to get revenge on was the president, and the journalists involved were particularly good at keeping his identity secret.
Like Watergate, Vietnam will eventually go away as an issue. That’ll happen whenever the left decides to allow it to. Until then Vietnam will divide us, sometimes bitterly -- whether Obama prevails next year or not.