The Bork hearing: When partisanship first turned ugly

The character assassination began the day Bork was nominated, when Ted Kennedy gave a fiery speech describing “Robert Bork’s America” as a place “in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters,” and so on. It continued until the day the nomination was voted down; one ad, for instance, claimed, absurdly, that Bork wanted to give “women workers the choice between sterilization and their job.”

Conservatives were stunned by the relentlessness — and the essential unfairness — of the attacks. But the truth is that many of the liberals fighting the nomination also knew they were unfair. That same Advocacy Institute memo noted that, “Like it or not, Bork falls (perhaps barely) at the borderline of respectability.” It didn’t matter. He had to be portrayed “as an extreme ideological activist.” The ends were used to justify some truly despicable means.

Today, of course, the court has a conservative majority, and liberal victories are, indeed, being overturned. Interestingly, Bolick says Bork’s beliefs would have made him a restraining force. Theodore Olson, who served as solicitor general under George W. Bush, also pointed out that after Bork, nominees would scarcely acknowledge that they had rich and nuanced judicial philosophies for fear of giving ammunition to the other side. Those philosophies would be unveiled only after they were on the court.