Robert H. Bork looks vaguely like a man out of a Rembrandt canvas. He has a fleshy face, a distinguished nose, an aureole of kinky graying hair, a stubbly beard, starting eyes that speak of intelligence, anger and a kind of melancholy.
The members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have done their homework. They spent the recess reading his voluminous printed work. They have heard from constituents who see Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court as President Reagan's boldest assault on legal questions answered and social advances made. They have heard from the White House that they have no right to turn down a man who could be mistaken for the man he succeeds, centrist Lewis F. Powell Jr.
Liberal fears that he would "North" the committee vanished early. His vaunted wit and warmth were under wraps. Hopes that he might come on as a cerebral right-wing kook were soon dispelled. The swagger and bluster of his enormous literary output -- only Joyce Carol Oates writes more -- is absent from his spoken text.
He was guarded, although not defensive, in explaining his cranky views of the Constitution. No one on the committee is a match for him. He is used to argument, at home with nuances. He was temperate and civil. The old Yale law professor treated the senators without the contempt for Congress with which his work is so liberally laced. He seemed to be participating in a seminar. He didn't lecture or patronize them; he seemed to assume that his quotations from other justices, from fellow academicians, would quiet all doubts about his "mainstream" quality.
Those daytime viewers trying to follow the long journeys down the dry and dusty paths of Roe v. Wade and Skinner v. Oklahoma and Bork's gratuitous and demeaning commentary about the constitutional flaws in the court's decisions may have turned back in bewilderment and boredom. There was no drama to keep them. Are they asking themselves, as the Democrats hope, if their lives will be different with him on the court? Do they believe, as the White House is instructing them, that only "extremists" and noisy special interests could oppose this erudite fellow, who claimed in his opening statement that his philosophy of judging is "neither liberal nor conservative."
The country first met Bork under grossly inauspicious circumstances -- during the massacre of October 1973, when President Richard M. Nixon demanded the head of special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), the scrappiest member of the panel, took Bork back to what some Republicans insist is his "finest hour."
Bork told how Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson refused. So did his deputy, William D. Ruckelshaus. Bork, after pacing the floor in their company, decided to do the deed.
Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) asked why he had hesitated.
"I did not want to be regarded as an apparatchik," Bork replied.
But Nixon's apparatchik he became to the left that day -- and, of course, a hero to the right. His reasons were as narrow as his arguments in the civil rights cases: he had not promised the Senate, as had Richardson and Ruckelshaus, not to fire the special prosecutor except for "extraordinary impropriety."
It was, according to his detractors, the first step in the long march to the Supreme Court nomination. The writings were calculated to keep the right reassured that if they wanted a high-gloss version of their wildest dreams of "strict interpretation" he was their man.
Surely the firing established him as a true believer in a conservative tenet: the supremacy of the president and his unlimited power. His vigorous, copious prose output further identified him as suitably doctrinaire, admirably hostile to whining minorities, devoted to the "original intent" of the Constitution.
In 1963, he attacked the public accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act as a "principle of unsurpassed ugliness." Ten years later, up for confirmation as a federal judge, he took it back.
Bork explained that he was in a "libertarian" phase and objected to all "coercion" in commercial transactions.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) asked Bork if he had thought about the suffering of blacks who in their travels could not sleep at hotels or eat at restaurants. Plainly, Bork had not.
His writings are devoid of humanity. People should pull up their socks, or pull up stakes, if they are not happy where they are and cannot prevail upon state legislatures to change laws they find oppressive. The function of the court is to fulfill the original intent of the framers of the Constitution. That's justice, Bork style.