On Thursday, Sept. 17, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) flew to Philadelphia on Air Force One with President Reagan for the bicentennial celebration of the Constitution. The timing of the event was propitious, for it gave Reagan a chance to lobby one of the key, undecided members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, then in its third day of hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork.

At a luncheon that day, Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) brought a 9-year-old black girl to the head table, where Specter was seated next to the president. The girl, in a soft voice that was barely audible to Specter, looked up at Reagan and asked, "Will Judge Bork protect my civil rights?"

Reagan, Specter recalled, put his hands on the girl's shoulders and replied:

"I'm sure Judge Bork will protect the rights of blacks, and the rights of everyone, and I wouldn't have nominated him if I didn't think so."

Then Reagan glanced at Specter and said, "Did you hear that, Arlen?"

"Yes, Mr. President, I heard it," Specter said.

Two weeks later, Specter delivered his verdict. His decision to oppose Bork was a turning point in the bitter struggle over the nomination that produced another defeat for the battered Reagan administration.

"Specter hit the game-winning RBI," said Tom C. Korologos, a pro-Bork lobbyist.

The Senate's decisive rejection of Bork yesterday was the last act in an extraordinary drama that began July 1 when Reagan nominated the bearded, former Yale Law School professor to the high court. The fight over his nomination was unprecedented in many respects as Bork's opponents brought all of the techniques and weapons of modern politics to bear in their drive to defeat him.

In the process, Bork's critics made some wild and distorted charges against him, but there is no evidence that they made an important difference in the outcome. Reagan charged that Bork, a federal appeals court judge here, was the victim of a "lynch mob," but by the end of the long and painful struggle, there was a consensus in the Senate that it was Bork -- and his lifetime of iconoclastic resistance to the main tides of American politics and jurisprudence -- that lay at the heart of his downfall.

The battle to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. left a bitter legacy that may color the debate over Reagan's next nominee, and a wide swath of personal and political wreckage.

The president, still reeling from the Iran-contra hearings, was not prepared for the full-scale political warfare that the Bork nomination provoked, his aides acknowledged. He and others in the administration seriously underestimated the intensity of the opposition and reacted too late to halt Bork's steady slide. As a result, Reagan's reputation for political wizardry was further tarnished and his weakened authority further eroded.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who is often accused of being more glittery smile and glib tongue than a politician of substance, was a chief architect of Bork's defeat. Yet, while Biden was guiding the Bork hearings toward the committee's 9 to 5 vote against confirmation, his campaign for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination collapsed under the weight of charges of plagiarism dating back to his days as a law student.

Like Biden, Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) also saw the Bork confirmation fight as a vehicle to further his quest for the presidency. In August, he made clear he intended to play a leading part in winning confirmation. But Dole never assumed that role, and by late September he was visibly distancing himself from the doomed nomination, incurring the wrath of many of the right-wing groups he has been courting for more than a year.

Bork, a proud man with a distinguished legal and academic record, was humiliated. His wife, Mary Ellen, and his children encouraged him not to give up the fight, but the decision to demand a vote by the full Senate was his alone and deeply irritated White House officials.

It will be forever debated whether Bork would now sit on the Supreme Court had Reagan nominated him instead of Antonin Scalia in June 1986 to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Chief Justice of the United States Warren E. Burger. In 1986, Republicans still controlled the Senate. In 1986, Reagan still basked in the glow of his second landslide election.

Whatever the reasons, Reagan first chose Scalia, who was confirmed, 98 to 0, two months before the November elections that returned control of the Senate to the Democratic Party. Ten months later, when Powell unexpectedly announced his retirement, Bork got his turn. But much had changed in the meantime and Bork was about to learn a cruel lesson about the last stages of the Reagan era: He was the wrong nominee at the wrong time.

The White House had been warned what to expect. Shortly after Powell resigned, White House chief of staff Howard H. Baker Jr. and Attorney General Edwin Meese III met with Biden and Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) to discuss the vacancy. They showed the two Democratic leaders an alphabetized list of more than a dozen names. Bork's name was first.

Biden said he told Baker and Meese that two of the potential nominees would encounter trouble but that there was one person on the list -- Bork -- who was certain to create "big problems."

At the same meeting, the ambivalence of some in the administration toward Bork and the split between a White House staff under Baker's direction and Meese's Justice Department first became evident. As Biden listed the reasons Bork was likely to encounter fierce resistance, he said, "Baker kept trying to draw me out. But Meese was sitting there, literally, saying, 'That's not true.' "

Despite this assurance, Reagan had made it clear to Meese and Baker in their first meeting on the subject that Bork was his preference. According to a senior official familiar with the discussion, Reagan brought up Bork's name even before Meese could make the formal recommendation.

In July, there was every reason for confidence among Bork's supporters. The nominee's professional qualifications and personal integrity were conceded from the outset by even his harshest critics, and there was a strong presumption in the Senate that it should defer to the president's selection unless faced with overwhelming evidence of disqualification.

"We thought we'd have ideological opposition, but essentially we were in a stronger position," a White House official recalled.

The Democrats, particularly Biden, were also on the defensive. Biden was immediately reminded that last year he had told the Philadelphia Inquirer that if Bork had been nominated instead of Scalia, "I'd have to vote for him."

He later explained that he would not object to Bork as a replacement for Scalia or another conservative but that Powell's status as the court's swing vote put this nomination in a different category.

Bork's supporters demanded early Judiciary Committee hearings and a Senate vote in time for Bork to take his seat on the Supreme Court at the start of the court's new term on Oct. 5. But after days of skirmishing, Biden and Sen. Strom Thurmond (S.C.), the committee's ranking Republican, agreed to begin hearings on Sept. 15.

"The Sept. 15 date was the biggest problem for us," a White House official said in retrospect. "The senators started out inclined to vote with us . . . . With the 2 1/2 months, there was a lot more time to gin up public fear and . . . make it sound credible."

The hot, steamy days of July and August were filled with frantic activity -- but only on the part of Bork's opponents. An unusually broad coalition of organizations that eventually numbered in the hundreds formed to fight the Bork nomination. While their media campaigns attracted much attention and criticism from Bork's supporters, there were other developments that were even more critical to Bork's loss.

Vacationing on Cape Cod, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, telephoned black leaders in the South, helping to mobilize the intense black opposition that the key, swing bloc of southern Democratic senators could not afford to ignore.

In Long Beach, N.J., where he was on vacation, Specter, the only Judiciary Committee Republican whose vote was not predetermined, spent much of the August recess studying the writings and opinions of Robert Bork. Almost every day, a package of Bork material was shipped to the vacationing senator, whose wife, Joan, insisted only that he break late in the day for a game of Scrabble and dinner.

Between Aug. 13 and 17, Boston pollster Thomas Kiley surveyed 1,008 voters on the Bork nomination for the anti-Bork forces.

Kiley concluded that the presumption that conservative southern whites would rally to Bork's cause was not necessarily true and that Bork was vulnerable on three grounds: civil rights, privacy and individual freedom, and big business versus the individual. The hearings on the nomination were structured around these themes, particularly the first two, and before they were over other polls showed pluralities of voters across the South, whites as well as blacks, opposed to confirmation.

In August, too, Biden began to cultivate Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (La.), a senior, politically savvy southern Democrat with ambitions to become majority leader. He sent Johnston material on Bork and argued that the divisive nomination should be seen as an opportunity.

"I made the case that this is a very positive thing for southerners, this is a chance to lead," Biden recalled. "I thought Bennett might be the first one to break."

Academic experts and Biden's staff put together seven thick binders of materials on Bork's views on key issues, but Biden said he decided early to make privacy the centerpiece of the hearings.

Bork also was busy preparing. He made dozens of calls on senators, displaying much more willingness to discuss his judicial philosophy than other Reagan nominees to the high court.

Korologos, a veteran lobbyist often retained by the administration to help in confirmation fights, favored this approach. Korologos said he knew that Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and other Judiciary Committee members had been annoyed by Scalia's refusal to answer many questions during his confirmation hearing.

As he had for other Reagan nominees, Korologos also organized what he calls "murder boards," mock hearings at which the nominee is confronted with the toughest possible questions. Bork, Korologos said later, "didn't like the murder boards" and only two full-scale rehearsals were held.

"Eventually, they turned into bull sessions at his house and elsewhere with a group of his friends sitting around and talking about the hearings," Korologos said.

Before the hearings, both sides faced similar problems controlling their extreme wings. "My biggest worry related to my being able to control the strategy," Biden said. The hearings were to be structured to appeal to conservative, southern Democrats, and "I didn't want people or arguments that would preclude broad-based support."

The right wing also had to be calmed lest Bork's allies unwittingly assist attempts to portray him as Reagan's chosen instrument to impose a radically conservative social agenda on the country. The White House urged conservative groups to lay low during the confirmation proceedings.

"Anyone who read the election results last year knows the Republicans don't control the Senate any more," Korologos said. "There weren't enough conservatives left to win. We had to calm them down."

This remains an abiding point of contention between Bork strategists. The White House-Justice Department split surfaced clearly in early August when Korologos and Assistant Attorney General John R. Bolton clashed over strategy during a meeting of Republican aides on the Judiciary Committee staff in Dole's office.

To Justice Department officials, White House caution allowed Bork's opponents to seize the initiative and dictate the terms of the battle. "The other side ran with this stuff and planted impressions that stuck," one official said.

The Justice Department favored a conservative hard sell for Bork. On the day Bork was nominated, department spokesman Terry H. Eastland proudly distributed to reporters a packet of material that included Bork's controversial 1971 Indiana Law Review article, probably the fullest exposition of his judicial philosophy. But when the article became a focal point for critics, Bork's Republican defenders fled from its contents, which they dismissed as the out-of-date musings of a law school professor who was "paid to be provocative."

Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds, the controversial head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, deliberately was kept in the background. But according to a Bork strategist, Reynolds played a major role in the battle, writing the administration's lengthy defense of Bork's views and coaching Bork on answers to the committee's questions.

White House officials insist that conservative organizations did not seek a prominent role in the fight, recognizing that "a highly visible role by them wasn't going to help," as one put it.

Korologos complained later that the conservatives did more than calm down. "They just disappeared," he said.

He also maintained that White House strategists did not urge Bork to shade his controversial opinions in an attempt to portray himself as a moderate. "We didn't say, 'Bork, go up there and be a moderate,' " he said. "It was Bork."

On Sunday, Sept. 13, Bork held his final "bull session" preparation around the dining room table of his house here. Those with him included Korologos; Bolton; Reynolds; Lloyd N. Cutler, White House counsel under President Jimmy Carter, and A. Raymond Randolph, a lawyer and longtime friend. The session lasted about two hours and was "very relaxed," Korologos said.

About 100 miles away on the same day, Biden completed his preparations in his Wilmington, Del., house. For more than six hours, he sat at a table and grilled the witness, "Judge Bork," a role played enthusiastically by Laurence H. Tribe, the Harvard Law School professor and Bork's ideological opposite. Biden's staff videotaped the session to see how it would play on television.

Administration officials, confident that Bork's formidable intellectual skills would overwhelm the committee, had described the nominee as their "secret weapon" in the confirmation fight.

But Bork's tightly reasoned views on constitutional issues were often lost in translation and he seemed unaware of the damage he was inflicting on himself. By the second day of the hearings, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) had coined the term "confirmation conversion," a tag that stuck to Bork as he wove through a 25-year record of strongly stated opinions, including harsh criticism of several key Supreme Court decisions.

On First Amendment protections, the application of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to sex discrimination cases and other issues, Bork retracted or modified long-held positions.

Biden was delighted. "Every time I could get him to recant, I won," he said. "People don't believe in recantations."

Bork maintained that a limited right to privacy could be found in several parts of the Constitution, but that the Constitution did not grant a "general right to privacy." This was the basis for his criticism of a 1965 Supreme Court decision overturning a Connecticut law that banned the use of contraceptives by married couples.

"Do you," Biden asked, "believe that the Constitution recognizes a marital right to privacy?"

"A marital right to privacy? I do not know," Bork replied. "It may well. I have seen arguments to that effect, but I have never investigated that."

Republicans on the committee tried to help, lobbing softball questions that Bork, to the dismay of White House officials and his friends, consistently flubbed. Asked his views on criminal justice -- a subject administration officials believed would have special appeal to the key southern senators -- Bork said that was not his area of expertise and the conversation drifted to other topics.

Under assault for his views on women's rights, Bork somehow failed to mention during five days of testimony that he resigned from the Century, a private club in New York, after it refused to change its policy and admit women.

Asked why he wanted to serve on the Supreme Court, Bork instinctively replied that he thought the job would provide "an intellectual feast." That answer, more than any other, deepened the impression of Bork as an oddly detached legal scholar, an intellectual without feeling.

Sen. Howell T. Heflin (D-Ala.), one of the key swing votes on the Judiciary Committee, told an administration official that he thought Bork was "weird."

As the hearings droned on, the forces that swamped the Bork nomination were already in motion. During late night Senate sessions, Johnston assumed the role of senior adviser to several newly elected southern Democratic senators, guiding them toward the opposition. He confidently told the freshmen -- who owed their elections to overwhelming black support -- that every one of them would vote against Bork.

The White House, taking its own reading of the election results, spent little time with the southern freshmen, figuring they had a better chance with more senior senators from the region. Specter, reelected by a comfortable margin last year, was seen as the key committee vote.

The Pennsylvanian had come to like Bork personally and to admire his skills. On Sept. 30, Specter held his final, 90-minute meeting with Bork. They went over familiar issues and cases, particularly dealing with First Amendment protections and the application of the equal protection clause, on which Bork's views still left Specter uneasy.

That night Specter spoke by telephone with Cutler, who was lobbying furiously for his friend Bork. He watched videotapes of some of the committee hearings. The next morning, he began writing his statement, but first called Bork to inform him of his decision to oppose confirmation.

"I'm disappointed to hear that," Bork said.

The Bork nomination collapsed on Thursday, Oct. 1. First Sen. David H. Pryor (D-Ark.), then Sen. Terry Sanford (D-N.C.) and then Johnston announced that they would vote against Bork. It was clear then that the South had been lost.

At midafternoon, administration strategists and Judiciary Committee Republicans met in Dole's office to discuss the rapidly deteriorating situation. One committee Republican was missing. A few feet away on the Senate floor, Specter rose to announce his opposition to confirmation.

Could it have turned out differently?

"I think he was confirmable. It was a winnable battle," said Eastland, the Justice Department spokesman, summarizing the view of the Meese forces.

While Bork's liberal opponents used the crucial summer months to gear up for the fight, one official complained, the White House took a leisurely approach as the president vacationed in Santa Barbara, Calif.

"The Bork nomination was lost on the beaches of California," the official said. "They didn't want to turn the level of heat up. The idea . . . was just drift him in."

Even near the end, when Bork went to the White House on Sept. 26 to complain about administration strategy and seek a nationally televised address by Reagan, senior officials seemed distracted and disinterested, the official said.

White House officials emphatically disagree with this assessment, insisting that from Reagan on down the administration made a maximum effort. They acknowledge a serious miscalculation at the outset, when they overestimated the likely importance of Bork's role in the firing of Watergate special prosector Archibald Cox and underestimated the importance of Bork's controversial writings as a law professor.

Outside the Justice Department and Bork's hard-core supporters in the Senate, there was a strong tendency, in retrospect, to place most of the blame on the nominee. Bork was described by one White House official as "very strong-minded" and by another as "eager to help but naive."

At one point, according to administration officials, Bork demanded an advertising campaign of his own to counter the anti-Bork commercials, concluding only later that this would be inappropriate for a Supreme Court nominee.

The White House also resisted his call for a presidential speech. Chief of staff Baker's view was that the Reagan speech should be timed for the Senate floor debate and vote, when it would have the most impact. But when the Judiciary Committee voted to reject the nomination, the battle was all but over and the brief, midafternoon speech Reagan did make was not even carried by three of the four major television networks.

Most important, Bork, who met personally with almost half the members of the Senate, did not persuade the key undecided votes, White House officials said. "The dogs just didn't like the food," said one Bork strategist.

On the eve of the hearings, a senator suggested to Korologos that Bork shave off his beard for the televised proceedings. There was a lot of talk like that on Capitol Hill, where the memory of Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North's effective, belligerent performance before the Iran-contra committees remained vivid.

But a critical Supreme Court nomination, which dealt with the future, not the past, was not going to be decided by cosmetics or theatrics. Bork would no more shave off his beard than he would shed his core beliefs about the "original intent" of the Constitution's framers, a doctrine that he applied rigidly and that led him to positions others found troubling.

Johnston spoke for himself and the other southern Democrats who, contrary to their political instincts, turned against the conservative nominee, relegating Bork to the footnotes of history.

"This is a real study in ineptitude," Johnston said. "Of all the great conservative minds they could have brought forward, there are enough who haven't called public accommodations 'unsurpassed ugliness' {a term Bork used in a magazine article in 1964}. There's not a civil rights advance in the last 20 years that he hasn't criticized.

"Then, on top of that, you have his not recognizing a right to privacy. And that is very big with everyone. It's just real ineptitude to have picked him. He was done before he started."

From start to finish, it was Bork's prolific writings on the grand legal debates of his time that crushed his chance of confirmation. And, within those writings -- specifically, his ringing First Amendment opinion in a 1984 libel case, Ollman v. Evans -- lies an ironic epitaph to his nomination:

"Those who step into areas of public dispute, who choose the pleasures and distractions of controversy, must be willing to bear criticism, disparagement, and even wounding assessments. Perhaps it would be better if disputation were conducted in measured phrases and calibrated assessments . . . . But that is not the world in which we live, ever have lived, or are ever likely to know, and the law of the First Amendment must not try to make public dispute safe and comfortable for all the participants."