This past Friday liberal Joe Nocera yesterday wrote something that both of the two supposedly conservative columnists who write for the New York Times op-ed page have often failed to do: pin the blame for the decline in public discourse in this country squarely where it belongs: on the supposedly high-minded liberals who like to pretend that it is only conservatives who say or do nasty things. The reason for the piece is that today is the 24th anniversary of the Senate’s rejection of the nomination of Judge Robert Bork for the U.S. Supreme Court. That battle was, as Nocera rightly notes, “the beginning of the end of civil discourse in politics.” It was a turning point in history and “the line from Bork to today’s ugly politics is a straight one.”
The history of the effort to demonize Bork is not a pretty one for Democrats, especially since, as Nocera says, Democrats take it as an article of faith that “our poisoned politics” is purely a function of Republican misbehavior. The character assassination of Bork was a cynical effort by leading Democrats to defame a highly respected jurist whose views were by no means extreme. Liberals knew they couldn’t defeat his nomination via a reasoned debate so they resorted to slander.
The worst thing about it wasn’t just how wrong it all was but that, as Nocera writes, liberals knew they were telling lies:
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.
Nocera gives full credit to the late Ted Kennedy for his dishonorable role in libeling Bork. The history of the Senate is replete with the lies told there by scoundrels but the “liberal lion’s” smears of Bork marked a new low.
The only thing that I would add to Nocera’s brilliant takedown of liberal hypocrisy is to mention two of the other players who deserve their fair share of the shame that ought to be attached to anyone involved in that campaign.
Vice President Joe Biden, who was then the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was just as responsible for the smears of Bork as was Kennedy. A year before Bork’s nomination, Biden had noted that Bork was an example of a highly qualified Republican jurist that liberals could not, in all conscience, oppose if he was nominated to the high court. Yet when opportunity knocked, Biden became the chief facilitator for the destruction of his character.
Just as bad, if not worse, was then Republican Senator Arlen Specter who lent his expertise as a prosecutor to the inquisition of Bork. In a long career replete with acts of cynical and unprincipled careerism, Specter’s attack on Bork was among the worst. Unlike some Democrats who had the sense to try to sweep their participation in this affair under the rug, Specter boasted of his role in the assassination of Bork’s character for the rest of his time in the Senate. To his everlasting shame, Specter provided a fig leaf of bipartisanship to an illegitimate process.
What happened to Bork — whose name became verb that connotes an attempt at character assassination — was the first step down the road towards a politics of personal destruction that is now ubiquitous. As Nocera concludes:
The point remains this: The next time a liberal asks why Republicans are so intransigent, you might suggest that the answer lies in the mirror.