Most of us would be honored to have our name become a verb. Especially those of us in public life. But that is not how Judge Robert H. Bork got into the dictionary. He was “borked” when President Reagan nominated him to the U.S. Supreme Court. No sooner had the announcement been made by the White House on July 1, 1987, than Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) raced to the Senate floor to denounce the distinguished judge and former Yale Law professor.
In Robert Bork’s America, Kennedy roared, blacks would once again sit in the back of the bus, rogue police would break in our doors, and women would be forced to go to back alley butchers for abortions. On and on, Kennedy ranted, using every extreme and exaggerated charge he could employ, to tarnish the judge’s reputation.
It was undoubtedly one of the most outrageous tirades ever seen in the Senate. It ranked with the notorious Sen. Bilbo. The Mississippi lawmaker once threatened to lynch a thousand blacks because Teddy Roosevelt had invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House.
But on that sultry July afternoon, Ted Kennedy was just warming up. His rant was the opening salvo in a well-orchestrated national media campaign to drag a good man’s name through the mud. Every article Prof. Bork had ever written had been dredged for a statement, sometimes a sentence fragment, that could be twisted to make him look like a demon, a hater of women and minorities, of working Americans.
Every liberal and far-left group in Washington had a role in bringing down Judge Bork. Each one had an assignment, doled out in almost daily strategy sessions. All had one purpose in mind: Make Robert Bork appear so evil that not only would he be rejected by the U.S. Senate, but any future Republican president would be deterred from naming a conservative jurist to the high court for fear of another borking.
Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) was then the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Many hoped that Biden, who cultivated a reputation as a reasonable liberal, would rein in some of the wilder antics of his committee members. Their conduct was said to have been the model for the bar scene in Star Wars.
Biden had said he thought any nominee who was objectively qualified, and who was not guilty of moral turpitude, should be approved. But he quickly got the message. Instead of reining in his obstreperous colleagues, he egged them on.
For example, Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) asked Judge Bork, who was under oath, to describe for the committee his religious beliefs. Judge Bork patiently explained his life’s spiritual journey. Neither Biden nor any other committee member chose to object.
Every member of the committee that met to consider Robert Bork’s nomination had taken an oath to support the Constitution. That Constitution was just 200 years old in that summer of 1987. From the earliest drafts that venerable document had this to say about religious tests for federal office: “[N]o religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”