Kennedy Was Mostly Right About Bork.

Reagan Bork.JPG

One of the reoccurring themes of today's remembrances of Ted Kennedy is his reaction to Robert Bork's nomination, which has been criticized as "extreme." Scott Johnson of Powerline, in fact, was so intent on reminding us of Kennedy's role in sinking Bork that he cannibalizes a post he wrote more than a year ago slamming Kennedy when he was first diagnosed with brain cancer and posts it as though it were fresh.

This is what Kennedy said shortly after Bork's nomination:

"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 could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is -- and is often the only -- protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy... President Reagan is still our president. But he should not be able to reach out from the muck of Irangate, reach into the muck of Watergate and impose his reactionary vision of the Constitution on the Supreme Court and the next generation of Americans. No justice would be better than this injustice."

Johnson calls Kennedy's statement "false charges" and accuses him, essentially of megalomania. In hindsight though, Kennedy's statement wasn't so much wrong as it was expressed in the kind of intemperate manner that ruffles feathers in Washington. The fact is, Bork believed only "political" speech was protected by the First Amendment; he, like many other conservatives,  didn't believe that women have the right to make choices about whether to carry pregnancies to term; he was critical of the idea that illegally obtained evidence shouldn't be used in court; and while nominally agreeing that the 14th Amendment prohibited racial discrimination -- as opposed to discrimination based on gender, which he thought it didn't -- in practice, he opposed every single piece of legislation ever passed in order to guarantee the civil rights of African Americans. Searching through old news reports, I can't speak to Kennedy's allegations on Bork's views on evolution in schools, but it's fairly clear that Bork's personal beliefs are anti-evolution.

Not surprisingly, Stuart Taylor Jr. wrote a fairly sympathetic profile of Bork at the time. (Ricci made Sonia Sotomayor a racist, but opposing the 1964 Civil Rights Act  and the 1965 Voting Rights Act just made Bork an originalist.) By contrast, William T. Coleman, former Ford transportation secretary and a member of an endangered species (the black, pro-civil rights Republican) wrote this about Bork:

The pattern is unmistakable. When it has counted, Robert Bork has often stood against the aspirations of blacks to achieve their constitutional rights and to remove the vestiges of racial discrimination. And as women and others move ahead to seek their equal share of the American Dream, there is the great risk that the pattern will repeat itself.

I spoke to Coleman, who was one of Thurgood Marshall's legal lieutenants, earlier this year. He told me he pulled the lever for John McCain in last years' election, over the protests of his friends and family. Coleman isn't a RINO; he is a lifelong Republican, a black man and civil rights pioneer who found Bork's views on the subject frightening.

Jeffrey Toobin writes that Kennedy's characterization was "crude and exaggerated,"but it wasn't really all that off the mark. It was just nasty -- and in Washington, D.C., how you say what you say matters more than whether or not it's true. Especially if you're a liberal.

-- A. Serwer

Picture of Bork and Reagan via Wikimedia

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