Samuel Goldwyn (''Oral agreements aren't worth the paper they're printed on'') committed one of his famous locutions in the quadrangle of Brasenose College, Oxford. Puzzled by something high on the wall of that ancient institution, he was told it was a sundial. When its working was explained to him, he exclaimed, ''What'll they think of next!''
What'll they think of next, those battalions contending over the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court? Bob Dole has thought that Reagan might, as the Constitution permits, make Bork a ''recess appointment.'' Dole says the idea is ''food for thought'' for Bork's most inflamed opponent, Sen. Joe Biden, chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Biden is malnourished regarding thoughtful approaches to the confirmation process. He is stalling the process to benefit his flagging presidential campaign. But a recess appointment would forfeit the moral high ground that Biden, by his rush to judgment, has handed to Bork's supporters. Republicans should not contemplate a short cut around a process that Biden is short-circuiting.
Dole says he mentioned the recess-appointment possibility only to pressure Biden, but the threat is not believable. True, Reagan could appoint Bork in December to counter an unbreakable filibuster. But Bork's tenure would extend only through this Congress, expiring as Reagan leaves office. The new president could renominate Bork or nominate someone else. A recess appointment would mean an immediate opportunity for a Democratic president.
Eisenhower made three recess appointments (Earl Warren, Potter Stewart, William Brennan). All were subsequently confirmed, but the Senate passed a nonbinding resolution deploring the procedure. The Senate was right then for the reason Biden is irresponsible today. Biden's exploitation of the process for political profit involves treating coarsely the most elegant branch of government. The judiciary is the intellectual branch. The executive and legislative branches legitimately can act on motives that are validated by simple power calculations -- by the pressure of a majority or a salient faction. The judiciary must ground its actions in reasonings about principles.
Bork is the most intellectually distinguished nominee since Felix Frankfurter (who was nominated by FDR 48 years ago). His Republican and Democratic supporters should be as eager for an intellectually serious confirmation proc-ess as Biden is eager for something quite different. The purpose of Biden's stall is to give interest groups time to marshal enough force to turn the confirmation process into a sweaty struggle of political power and intimidation.
How else explain the 71 days that will have passed between Bork's nomination and the beginning of hearings on Sept. 15? For the last 16 nominees, hearings began, on average, 18 days after the nominee's name was sent to the Senate. The longest delay was 42 days. If Biden wanted an intellectually serious process, one turning on a searching examination of the great themes of constitutional law, he could have begun the hearings weeks ago.
He could have, unless the chairman of the Judiciary Committee is not prepared to discuss those themes. If not, how was he prepared to prejudge Bork within hours after Bork was nominated?
Bork will have Democratic supporters. Two Judiciary Committee Democrats -- Alabama's Howell Heflin, a former judge, and Arizona's Dennis DeConcini, who has said he does not believe in ideological tests for nominees -- seem likely to resist being roped into Biden's herd. Majority Leader Robert Byrd, while reserving judgment on Bork, has deplored attempts to make the Bork vote ''a litmus test of party affiliation and loyalty.''
However, pounding from the right may hammer Democrats into something like a solid bloc. Some conservative organizations not famous for delicacy are portraying the entire Democratic Party as Bork's opposition. That is dangerous to Bork, who will need Democratic votes to stop a filibuster, if it comes to that. If it does, his supporters can then adopt scorched-earth tactics.
The Senate runs on rules that presuppose mutual civility. Biden, the Oliver North of the confirmation process, is shredding that civility by treating the Bork nomination as a national emergency that licenses his extremism. If he enlists enough Northlings to sustain a filibuster and block cloture, Bork's supporters can tie the Senate in knots, making it impossible for anything debatable (which almost everything is) to be acted upon.
Until then, Bork's supporters should resist being Bidenized, meaning radicalized. In ''Animal Crackers,'' Groucho Marx asks the musically minded Chico, ''How much do you charge not to play?'' That is the question Bork's wisest supporters should ask some of his other supporters.