Commentary editor explores Bork’s legacy

John Podhoretz of Commentary magazine devotes a new column to Robert Bork, one of the rare people to suffer the dubious honor of having his name transformed into a verb.

Bob’s sin was believing that the job of a constitutional jurist was to analyze constitutional cases in light of the specific language of the Constitution and the intent and ideas of those who wrote it. For believing this—for believing in the classical notion, which defines the very act of interpretative scholarship, that a work of governing philosophy and practice has intrinsic meaning and not just the meaning we wish to assign to it—he was disgustingly slandered.

Perhaps the most important legal scholar of his day, whose work on matters ranging from anti-trust to the complexities of privacy laws was both accessible and deeply considered, Bork was exactly the sort of choice serious-minded people should have welcomed. The Court had been in large measure the province of lightweights who were considered politically safe or somehow controllable, men who possessed no intellectual compass and were either the captives of their clerks or of the conventional wisdom. His nomination did the Court credit. It was an effort to elevate it.

But no. Nothing like the campaign to deny Bork the Supreme Court had ever been seen before. It was a systematic campaign of personal destruction undertaken by liberal interest groups who had come to see the growing conservatism of the Reagan-era judiciary as an existential threat to them. Only a year earlier, Antonin Scalia had been affirmed by a 98-0 vote in the Senate, but in the interim, Democrats had taken hold of the body in the 1986 elections and the stage was set for a new era of personal destruction in the pursuit of a supposedly higher good.

Bob Bork became a sacrificial lamb for, among others, Ted Kennedy, who libeled him with the preposterous allegation that Bork wanted to return America to the days in which women got abortions with coat hangers. Why? For the crime of arguing, honestly and correctly, that Roe v. Wade, which somehow found a right to abortion in the language of a document that never mentioned abortion, was a travesty.

To know Bob Bork was to be astonished at the level of invective he generated. He was a shy, abrupt, slyly witty, and intensely thoughtful man. He had no airs. You asked him a question, he answered it.

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