Television does not seem to be getting the rap for cooking Robert Bork's goose. This is a strange turn of events. Television has cooked plenty of geese in its time, Gary Hart's and Joseph Biden's among the most recent, and it's de rigueur to blame TV in cases like this.
But Bork, the apparently doomed Supreme Court nominee, was sunk, some feel, before the televised Senate Judiciary Committee hearings even began. There are, after all, still a few political realities not interlinked with video. Television could have played the role of Bork's salvation, however; the White House probably thought Bork could just wow everybody at the hearings and thus thwart the debunkers -- the deBorkers, as it were.
The reason the plot failed is that Bork came across on television as coldhearted and condescending. A dazzling intellect, if that's really what he has, doesn't necessarily guarantee television stardom; indeed, it may all but preclude it, to take precedent as a guide. Some viewers must have looked at Judge Bork and seen in him every haughty professor whose lectures they dreaded in college.
On the telegenicism scale, if one existed, Bork scored roughly 25 of a possible 100 points.
Appearance counts in television, obviously enough. The portly Bork with his Fu Manchuish facial hair became almost immediately an object of derision. David Letterman asked on his "Late Night" television show if America wanted a Supreme Court justice "who couldn't even decide whether he wanted to grow a beard or not."
On a recent edition of Fox Television's "A Current Affair," a teen-on-the-street jokingly insisted that Bork was actually Victor Buono in his King Tut get-up from the old "Batman" show. Those with deeper media memories may have seen in Bork an almost uncanny and somewhat unnerving resemblance to actor Niall MacGinnis as made up for the part of Dr. Karswell, urbane leader of a cult of devoted devil worshipers, in the 1958 British horror classic "Curse of the Demon."
Johnny Carson, in his Wednesday night monologue, acknowledged the apparent hopelessness of the nomination when he said, "Bork isn't having a very good week. I saw him at a bar this afternoon sharing a margarita with Valerie Harper." Harper was fired from the starring role in her own television series when she demanded a raise in salary and greater creative control.
It's not as if Bork was up against fabulously formidable opponents on the committee. Chairman Biden, whom one assumed would be the leader of the charge, did a Nicely-Nicely routine that was two parts saccharin to one part NutraSweet. Bork, it's being said, was a victim of too many consulting cooks -- backstage image polishers who coaxed him into trying to sound more moderate in his views -- but so, perhaps, was Biden, who strove to counter his bellicose image by repeatedly flashing a sinister smile not unlike that worn by Tony Perkins during his final scene in "Psycho."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, at times too long-winded, managed to be dynamic and dignified in most of his accusatory questioning. But who really needs opponents when one has allies like Orrin Hatch, recycling the hackneyed shenanigans he pulled at the Rehnquist hearings?
Or, for that matter, friends like Alan Simpson, who reprised his pained posturing about the brutalities and ruthlessness of life on the Hill; oh how can we be so beastly to this dear little man, why must we sully and pillory such a distinguished jurist, have we at long last no decency, and so on. You'd think Simpson had been suffering through 40 years of bloody congressional skirmishes instead of a mere nine.
He's always playing Marc Antony to some imagined slain Caesar. The nomination of Bork by Ronald Reagan was a plainly political move; why was it then so heinous to attack it on plainly political grounds?
Groups like People for the American Way, which ran an effective anti-Bork commercial narrated by Gregory Peck, are being chastised right and left for distorting Bork's record. What do people think Bork himself was trying to do when he bellied up to the witness table? When he wasn't dodging, he was revising.
As for Hatch, he remains the indefatigable stooper. Nobody stoops lower, except maybe Geraldo Rivera. Reagan's implicit threat to make Hatch his next nominee was probably the nastiest note sounded during the whole affair. This is cause for putting a towel over your head and running for cover, the way some listeners did upon hearing the Orson Welles "War of the Worlds" broadcast in 1938.
Pundits and politicos, and the usual cadre of supercilious moralists, are wrangling with one another over who behaved most abysmally during the Bork confirmation process. The fact is, as America watched Bork, America learned to dislike Bork. Polls taken before the televised hearings began showed a majority of respondents unaware of Bork or his views.
As Bork's appearance before the committee progressed, the polls showed growing disenchantment. A shortage of compassion on Bork's part seemed palpable. Maybe people looked at Bork, pondered his judicial status, and imagined being up before him on a charge of driving while intoxicated or running a red light. He didn't look like he would be understanding or take into account mitigating circumstances.
He looked, and talked, like a man who would throw the book at you -- maybe like a man who would throw the book at the whole country. One comic joked that Bork found no guarantee in the Constitution of the right to watch television. It is, of course, among the most unalienable of modern rights. Television may not have cooked Bork's goose but it certainly did some gourmet basting.