It's always best, I find, not to talk too rapturously about Ye Olde Days: days which, on careful inspection, yield evidence of problems aplenty. I won't assert, therefore, that no public figure ever received in earlier times a public evisceration comparable to that inflicted on the late Robert Bork, presidential nominee in 1987 to a seat on the U. S. Supreme Court.
I will make just two claims: 1) The political-journalistic assault on Judge Bork was indecent, slanderous, and hysterical -- a disgrace to ethics and standards all across the board; and 2) it ought to have warned us what a mess our national life was becoming.
Americans under 35 or so won't remember the scandal of the Bork hearings: the slimy attacks on a distinguished jurist, the distortions of his record, and most of all, the out-and-out lies spun by public figures unwilling to admit they knew better.
Largest of the liars -- I don't mean merely in pounds and ounces -- was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who, one hour after the nomination was announced, characterized "Robert Bork's America" as "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, school children could not be taught about evolution ..." -- blah, blah, blah.
The hue and cry had commenced. In Bork's obituary, The New York Times observed, "the fear that his confirmation would curtail settled rights, especially of blacks and women, created a national reaction. An array of groups focused on civil and women's rights, labor, consumer power and the environment began an extraordinary public campaign against him ..."
Without, of course, a shred of evidence to go on, apart from knowledge of Bork's conservative skepticism regarding the wholesale expansion of liberal claims. A justice unwilling to declare most, or better yet, all, liberal positions virtuous and constitutional couldn't be countenanced. Bork had to be declared, in Sen. Joe Biden's words, "out of the mainstream" -- a radical, an extremist. The Senate, with regular boosts of energy from the media, not to mention American Bar Association liberals, so declared him, and thus defeated his nomination. Sorry, Bob, nothing personal.
But what was this "extremism" business? Bork didn't propose the return of thumbscrews to criminal proceedings, or the establishment of a national religion. What then? Never one to hide his views, Bork had made well-known his general opposition to vindicating every interest group claim as an innate human right, thitherto hidden from view, ready at last to emerge, by judicial touch.
Supporters of Roe vs. Wade feared he would vote to overturn the decision. What if he'd demanded (as he might have) to be shown where the Constitution entitled a woman to abort her unborn child? Roe, which conferred that entitlement, was a judicial fable, spun from the conviction of seven justices that what wasn't precisely spelled out was nevertheless in there somewhere.
The court didn't need a human corrective to such sloppy thinking? It didn't need the jurisprudence of Robert Bork? Why, no, it appeared -- the court needed more sloppy thinking than ever, certainly not less. Or so the gang screaming hysterically at Bork could easily be understood as asserting.
I mentioned the warning that came to us by way of the Bork debacle. We understood in 1987, and understand better now, the efficacy of lies about designated opponents. Harder to understand during the '80s -- the sunny Reagan years -- but becoming steadily clearer is the vast power of an intellectual-political class prepared to bulldoze obstacles, human or constitutional, to get whatever it wants, devil take the hindmost.
The framers of the Constitution had hoped for better outcomes. Little notion they can have had concerning life in Teddy Kennedy's America, where recognized opinion leaders rarely shrink from destroying or humiliating those dim and dumb enough to hold views contrary to their own; where the end always justifies the means; where power is all, and all is about power.