Times columnist Joe Nocera's Saturday op-ed, 'The Ugliness Started With Bork,' used an obscure anniversary to launch a surprising broadside against Democrats as capable of being as "mean-spirited and unfair" as those nasty Republicans. Nocera, who compared the Tea Party to terrorists in August, admitted liberals bear a lot of responsibility for what he claims is today's atmosphere of political ugliness (and he should know). Nocera went on to claim 'The Bork fight, in some ways, was the beginning of the end of civil discourse in politics.'
On Oct. 23, 1987 - 24 years ago on Sunday - Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court was voted down by the Senate. All but two Democrats voted 'nay.'
Moreover, Bork was a legal intellectual, a proponent of original intent and judicial restraint. The task of the judge, he once wrote, is 'to discern how the framers' values, defined in the context of the world they knew, apply to the world we know.' He said that Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, was a 'wholly unjustifiable judicial usurpation' of authority that belonged to the states, that the court's recent rulings on affirmative action were problematic and that the First Amendment didn't apply to pornography.
Whatever you think of these views, they cannot be fairly characterized as extreme; Ruth Bader Ginsburg, among many others, has questioned the rationale offered by the court to justify Roe v. Wade. Nor was Bork himself an extremist. He was a strongly opinionated, somewhat pugnacious, deeply conservative judge. (At 84 today, he hasn't mellowed much either, to judge from an interview he recently gave Newsweek.)
I bring up Bork not only because Sunday is a convenient anniversary. His nomination battle is also a reminder that our poisoned politics is not just about Republicans behaving badly, as many Democrats and their liberal allies have convinced themselves. Democrats can be - and have been - every bit as obstructionist, mean-spirited and unfair.
I'll take it one step further. The Bork fight, in some ways, was the beginning of the end of civil discourse in politics. For years afterward, conservatives seethed at the 'systematic demonization' of Bork, recalls Clint Bolick, a longtime conservative legal activist. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution coined the angry verb 'to bork,' which meant to destroy a nominee by whatever means necessary. When Republicans borked the Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright less than two years later, there wasn't a trace of remorse, not after what the Democrats had done to Bork. The anger between Democrats and Republicans, the unwillingness to work together, the profound mistrust - the line from Bork to today's ugly politics is a straight one.
Nocera even recounted Sen. Ted Kennedy's notorious attack speech describing 'Robert Bork's America' as a place 'in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters....'
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. That same Advocacy Institute memo noted that, 'Like it or not, Bork falls (perhaps barely) at the borderline of respectability.' It didn't matter. He had to be portrayed 'as an extreme ideological activist.' The ends were used to justify some truly despicable means.
Mostly, though, 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.