Bork's Shadow Looms Over Court Opening

"There was no political campaign on my behalf," Robert H. Bork said of the 1987 fight. (1987 Photo By James K.w. Atherton -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The beard is gone. Once scraggly and reddish, it had long since turned scraggly and white, and so finally he shaved it off. "It was time to go," he said.

But if the cleanshaven Robert H. Bork is no longer recognized and approached at airports, his image remains vividly etched in the minds of official Washington. Now 18 years after his fireworks-filled confirmation battle and crushing defeat in the Senate, the long shadow of Bork hangs over another pending court appointment.

His name has been invoked from virtually the first moments after Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement letter arrived at the White House on July 1. Remember Bork, both sides cry, with different messages in mind. For the left, he remains the archetype of judicial extremism, a frightening symbol to remind American liberals of the stakes involved in the latest court appointment. For the right, he has become the martyr to treacherous leftist politics, a living lesson in the importance of waging an all-out battle for a judicial nomination.

"Robert Bork represented the moment when the left decided they were not going to defer to the president in allowing him to make over the court," said Sean Rushton, executive director of the Committee for Justice, which was formed to support President Bush's judicial nominees. "And we've been at war ever since."

The lasting influence of the Bork fight in 1987 can be seen in the very existence of Rushton's organization. When President Ronald Reagan nominated Bork, liberals mounted a well-organized, well-financed campaign against him, and conservatives were slow and ineffective in responding. Rushton, just 12 at the time, recalls his mother wearing a "Block Bork" button.

As a result, conservatives working closely with the White House this time have assembled a number of committees already hard at work to support whomever Bush names -- from the Committee for Justice to the Judicial Confirmation Network to Progress for America. Broader conservative advocacy organizations such as the Family Research Council and the American Center for Law and Justice have laid out plans for aggressive public campaigning.

"We're not going to be caught flat-footed like we were with Bork," said a senior administration official who is not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Edwin Meese III, a veteran of the Bork battle as Reagan's attorney general and a key adviser to the current White House on court strategy, said Bush must not let his nominee be introduced to the American public by the other side. "One of the key things is not to let the left-wingers like Teddy Kennedy identify the nominee but to get the facts out to the public right away," Meese said, referring to the Democratic senator from Massachusetts.

C. Boyden Gray, a former White House counsel who founded the Committee for Justice at the behest of the president's aides, agreed: "Conservatives didn't have anything to say. There weren't any outside groups. There was no network help to support him. That's the biggest lesson. That's why we were asked to get started."

The lessons of Bork are shaping the Bush White House deliberations in other ways, presidential aides said. Rather than allow his nominee to twist for many weeks waiting for hearings that will not start until after the August recess, Bush has delayed announcing his selection to truncate the window of vulnerability.

And already Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff and Bush's top political strategist, has called for limiting the scope of confirmation hearings, saying ideology should not be a subject of senators' questions as it was 18 years ago.

In an interview last week, Bork, 78, offered this advice to the nominee: "Tell them you're not going to say how you're going to vote because that's not proper interrogation. If you can't get away with that, I think you have to not say how you're going to vote but say 'This is problematic' and 'This isn't.' "

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