Bob Woodward met his source "Deep Throat" in a parking garage. I have a different method of operating. I bumped into my source, a pro-Bork senator, on the checkout line at Safeway. "What happened?" I asked. "It's the civil rights thing," the senator said and then disappeared into the night -- not Deep Throat style, with the echo of a cigarette rasp, but with two frozen dinners.
Columnists are always imposing on history, imploring it to note something of momentary interest. But in a spare moment, history might want to reflect on how much Robert Bork has in common with Ronald Reagan and why the president could not possibly understand how others could find Bork so objectionable. That chance encounter at Safeway (Washington at its provincial best) tells you all you need to know. Like Bork, the president has never understood the "civil rights thing."
Of course, there is not the slightest suggestion in Bork's record that he is a racist. Indeed, there is testimony from associates that Bork finds racism morally repugnant. He has said so and has shown during his career that he is a man of conscience. As a Chicago lawyer, he was instrumental in breaking his firm's barrier against Jews and later, as U.S. solicitor general and an appeals court judge, Bork proved that he would not countenance discrimination against blacks.
Similarly, there is nothing in Reagan's past to suggest that he is a racist. The president was raised in a tolerant home. His father would not permit young Ron to see "Birth of a Nation" because he thought the film glorified the Ku Klux Klan and once, according to Reagan, spent the night in a car rather than in a hotel that barred Jews. Reagan recounts that as a college football player he took two black players to his home when a hotel would not let them in. These stories may have the whiff of myth to them, but, even so, they are not ones a racist would tell.
And yet both Reagan and Bork have opposed civil rights legislation. Initially, Reagan opposed every recent civil rights act. As for Bork, he not only criticized a court decision striking down the poll tax, he also found fault with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which barred discrimination in hotels, motels, restaurants and public restrooms. Bork, the intellectual, anguished over the rights of proprietors. Reagan, no intellectual, nevertheless struck the same note: even bigots "have certain constitutional rights." Not since John Steinbeck teamed George with Lenny have two such intellectually disparate people found such common cause.
Reagan has persisted in extolling equality while ensuring that the government does little to enforce it. In 1982, the Justice Department overturned precedent and attempted to grant Bob Jones University, which expels students for interracial dating or marriage, a federal tax exemption. In other ways -- affirmative action, busing, open housing -- the Reagan administration has shown blacks that the government to which they had always looked for help is now looking away. Indeed, only Reagan could refer to blacks (and women) as "special interests" -- their interest being nothing less than equality.
A popular president can weather the antipathy of blacks and, indeed, even win a landslide election. But the Reagan presidency has always been an odd affair. The country has counted on both Congress and the courts to restrain the president -- to rein in his impulses to trash various civil rights laws. Congress and the courts have done their jobs, and while blacks know they have no champion in the White House, they also know there is little real damage Reagan could do.
But a Supreme Court nomination is an entirely different matter. In the first place, votes for confirmation come from individual senators. Their constituencies are not national. Some senators, particularly Democrats recently elected from the South, owe their seats to black support. Unlike Reagan, they are beholden. Second, the court itself is one of the ropes restraining the King Kong in the White House. Should it snap, should a Bork tip the balance, then the antipathy Reagan has to government enforcement of civil rights might no longer be just a potential threat. The monster would be loose.
The sound of Robert Bork's nomination going down has been mistaken by some as the sharp echo of a political execution. It is really nothing of the sort. What Washington heard, instead, was the civil rights revolution finally being hammered into place. The rejection of Bork proves its permanence and acceptance and should suggest to Reagan how out of step he is with most Americans when it comes to civil rights. He has never understood that. Now maybe he will.