On 1 March 1927, Robert Bork was born. He is most notable for becoming acting Attorney General under Richard Nixon after Elliot Richardson resigned rather than fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Regardless of much after the fact apologetics, Bork did the deed, very likely because of a promise from Nixon to appoint him to the Supreme Court. Of course, Nixon could not follow through on that given that he wasn’t president for long enough.
Bork was very important to my political education. When he was later nominated to the Supreme Court by another felonious president, Ronald Reagan, I followed the nomination hearings very closely. There was a huge push to stop him from going on the court. I was very much against him given what I had read. But by the end of the hearings, I was just confused. Bork seemed very reasonable answering questions. And his justifications for things he had written seemed plausible. So when he was not confirmed, it didn’t mean much to me and I got on with my life.
But then Bork became something of a public intellectual doing debates and such. And I got to hear and read what he had to say about stuff outside the context of trying to fool the Senate Judiciary Committee. What I found was that he was an entirely unreasonable and unreasoning man. He was a conservative true believer, very much in the mold of Antonin Scalia. (I supposed it is actually the other way around.) He had a brilliant mind but he used it almost exclusively to justify opinions that had likely ossified during his childhood.
In the end, it doesn’t matter that Bork was never on the Supreme Court. He is probably the most important advocate for originalism—the idea the law is not fluid but means whatever those who originally wrote it thought it meant. I don’t agree with this philosophy, but that isn’t the main problem. As we have seen time and again with Scalia and Thomas, the original intent only ever constrains a law if it leads to a conservative (some might say Paleozoic) interpretation. The supposed originalists are more than willing to come up with the most radical of ideas when it suits them.
And given who Robert Bork showed himself to be during his career, I’m sure he would have been the same on the Supreme Court. The law for people like Bork is just a plaything—something they use their enormous intellects to manipulate in order to come to predetermined conclusions about keeping the powerful powerful and the low low. What is the point of the law if it is used for that purpose?
Robert Bork was born 87 years ago and that is the legacy of his life.