There is something of the invincible high-school boy about Joe Biden. It is in his manner -- ingenuous, good natured, self-absorbed, awkward, incorrigibly given to not-so-funny jokes and asides. His punishment has been sensible, mild and familiar: he is going to have to take the course again, for which, this time around, he gets an F. Perhaps four years from now, it is said (by him, among others), Joe Biden will be allowed to run for president a second time. This seems roughly just to me. What I find more interesting than the punishment is the misconduct itself -- especially the retroactive falsification of his school record. For I suspect that just as Biden in some sense believed that Neil Kinnock's stirring autobiography was his own, so he believed, in the Washington-driven part of him, that the greatly improved academic past he was boasting about belonged to him, too, that it had in fact happened that way.
When I say "Washington-driven," I mean that Biden had fallen prey to an affliction that is particularly widespread and profound in our politics, especially in this city: a kind of numbed, ahistorical way of viewing the current scene, a rearrangement of the past to fit and resemble the present, the obliteration of inconvenient history and even slightly complicated context. It is much bigger a phenomenon than Joe Biden, and it involves much more prodigious, if less conscious, feats of shredding than any Fawn Hall ever accomplished. You can hear it expressed every day via our podiums and airwaves. It is the retooled "truth" of those who were "always" for civil rights or "always" against the war in Vietnam or "always" in precisely the position that today is generally deemed the right one.
This is not actually said so often as it is merely implied, and it doesn't exactly qualify as a lie (as some of Biden's statements did). But it is more insidious precisely because it is less explicit. You can nail an outright falsehood, especially where a bunch of grade sheets and professorial memories still exist. But you can't quite nail the intangible falsity of the context of a discussion or of the powerfully conveyed assumptions that animate an argument. Certainly the hearings on Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court have suffered on this account. What is unsatisfying about them to me is that the obliteration of historical context makes it harder to get an accurate fix on Bork's deficiencies of vision and his distance from what is now accepted as mainstream. I am prepared to believe that these have been dramatic and extreme. But you can't really measure that very well in a setting in which everyone -- on both sides -- is affecting to believe pretty much the same things and always to have believed them, even when this is contrary to the truth. You have to turn elsewhere.
One hot civil-rights action issue at the beginning of the Kennedy administration was what could be done to get restaurants on the Maryland highway to admit black African diplomats who frequently traveled the road between the United Nations and Washington. It was solemnly urged upon the recalcitrant greasy-spoon proprietors that it was only foreigners, not American blacks for heaven's sakes, on whose behalf admission was being sought. The principal agitators in town for dramatic civil-rights legislation were liberal Republicans, who got nowhere with their own party or the Democrats until violence in the South proved their point for them. When, by a series of unusual circumstances, a provision was added to the landmark civil-rights legislation of 1964 making its terms applicable to discrimination on the basis of sex, in addition to race, the accomplishment was regarded almost universally as a huge joke. If you had mentioned gay rights at the time, everyone would have fainted.
I mention all this not to say that Bork in those days was right -- he was breathtakingly wrong and his recurrent failures of sensibility on this subject are surely worth considering in his confirmation hearing. My point is that I would have more confidence in the judgments of those inspecting and analyzing his record for us if they would cease pretending that both they and the world we all live in have always been about as they are now. I sit before my TV and watch Strom Thurmond offering his personal assurance that there is nothing in the Bork record to suggest a variance from current orthodoxy on racial rights. Strom Thurmond! How old do you have to be to remember where Sen. Thurmond was before the passage of the voting-rights legislation (which he fought tooth and nail) enfranchised black voters in his state and caused him, expediently, to change his tune? I watch the dour, earnest probings into the record by the Democrats' Senate leader, Robert Byrd, himself a former Ku Klux Klansman and vigorous fighter against racial rights, who supported the filibuster and voted against passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I look at that whole tableful of senators and see volumes of history -- of reality -- that have been blotted out of their consciousness, so far as I can tell, and certainly out of their affectation of unswerving moral probity.
We do not so much forgive history in this city as we forget it, or rewrite it, which amounts to the same thing. For better and worse reasons people in the first instance may get perceived as monsters; everything they do or say is then reinterpreted in terms of their monstrosity; they are the most evil and menacing thing to have stalked the earth since the club-wielding giants of yore. Then, one day, you realize that they are now being regarded as adorable. Who knows why? Barry Goldwater, to take a prominent case, went through this transformation. One day they thought he was Hitler, the next day they seemed to think he was cute like Porky Pig -- no explanations given. Records are altered. Opinions are retroactively revised. Not just everything that was thought and felt, but more importantly, the reality in which it was thought and felt are forgotten. No one owns up to having made a mistake in the past. No one owns up to possession of a raised consciousness.
Bork, of course, has had to admit much change. Some of his interrogators don't believe him. But they would be much more persuasive if somewhere, just somewhere, along the line they would acknowledge that they themselves have changed to some degree as have the times and reigning values.
1987, Newsweek, Inc. Reprinted by permission; all rights reserved.
We do not so much forgive history in this city as we forget it or rewrite it to fit the present.