10:30 AM PST, January 2, 2013
Bork, v., trans., "To defame or vilify (a person) systematically, esp. in the mass media, usually with the aim of preventing his or her appointment to public office; to obstruct or thwart (a person) in this way."
--Oxford English Dictionary in an entry dated March 1992.
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"We're going to bork him. We're going to kill him politically. ... This little creep, where did he come from?"
--Florynce Kennedy, addressing a conference of the National Organization for Women in July 1991 on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court of the United States.
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It may be a distinction to become a verb, but not necessarily a welcome one. Look under Boycott, Captain Charles C. A land agent, he found himself shunned -- boycotted -- after he attempted to raise the rents of Irish tenant farmers who worked the fields of an absentee English lord. Or see Crapper, Thomas. He held at least three patents on improvements to the flush toilet, a useful and sanitary innovation that revolutionized plumbing systems worldwide.
And then there is Bork, Robert H., whose name has been transformed into a verb that may forever vindicate him. For it indicates how unfairly, indeed viciously, he was treated when Ronald Reagan nominated him for a seat on this country's highest court in 1987.
The most notable, the most elaborate, indeed the most unforgettable smear of a whole, well-orchestrated campaign of them directed against Judge Bork would come from the late Ted Kennedy, U.S. senator and demagogue of the first water -- whose own scandalous behavior a couple of decades earlier had faded by then. (Does anybody else remember the name Mary Jo Kopechne?)
It took the sainted senator from Massachusetts less than an hour after Robert Bork's nomination to the court had been announced to deliver a diatribe that is still quoted in the annals of American vilification. Indeed, no honest newspaper failed to include a snippet or two of that performance in Sen. Kennedy's obituary -- just to lend a little balance to all the exaggerated eulogies delivered on his passing. To quote the high point, or rather low point, of the senator's virtuoso performance at the art of misrepresentation:
"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 government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is often the only protector...."
There wasn't a single assertion in the senator's rhetorical broadside that was true, and the cumulative effect would have done justice to a Joe McCarthy or Robert Welsh, or some of the campaign commercials directed at Mitt Romney (remember him?) during this last presidential election.
There were legitimate reasons to oppose the nomination of the Hon. Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court of the United States, like his assumption that, contrary to Mr. Justice Holmes, the life of the law has been logic, not experience. It was a natural enough error for someone of his intellect to fall into, assuming that the law is only an intellectual discipline -- rather than one shaped by precedent, custom, politics and practical necessity. Not to mention other pressures to which history is heir.
Scholar and logician that Robert Bork was, he wound up making an idolatrous doctrine of Original Intent, insisting that the intent of the Founders is all when it comes to constitutional interpretation, which gave his law a brittle and vulnerable character. For a constitution that cannot change cannot grow. And all living things must grow or die. Judge Bork never recognized that the Constitution lives, too, and that his suffocating literalism would not save it so much as mummify it. ("A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation." --Edmund Burke.)
But it was the illegitimate criticisms of Robert Bork's legal philosophy -- the complete misrepresentation of what he believed and ruled in case after case -- that his most ardent critics pushed beyond any bounds of civility. In the end, they would disgrace themselves rather than the judge once the verdict of history was in. Those of his critics who were honest would look back on that campaign of distortion and vituperation, and, in the light of time, regret it.
To quote Jeffrey Rosen, an aide to Joe Biden when the senator from Delaware chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee that so maligned Robert Bork: "Bork's record was distorted beyond recognition. ... The borking of Bork was the beginning of the polarization of the confirmation process that has turned our courts into war zones."
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Robert Bork himself would go on to a second career as a philosopher-at-law and public intellectual of note. And as a verb -- one that would survive both him and his critics. And that still, in its concise way, says more about the nature of the debate over his qualifications for the Supreme Court than all the detailed studies of that controversy could hope to do.
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On his death the other day at 84, Robert Heron Bork had long ago risen above all the smears directed at him. And become a verb.
(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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