The Meaning of Robert Bork

Judge Robert Bork is sworn in to testify before the Senate Judiciary committee on his nomination to be a Supreme Court Justice, Sept. 14, 1987 Photograph by Wally McNamee/Corbis

Poor Walter Hickel. Selected as Richard Nixon’s first Secretary of the Interior in 1968, Hickel endured a confirmation fight so painful that some in Washington began to refer to a contentious appearance on Capitol Hill as “getting hickeled.” Twenty years later, the phrase had stuck only as a snippet of institutional memory, recalled by Daryl Frazell in October 1987 as he predicted in the St. Petersburg Times that the verb “to bork” would disappear.

Robert Bork was a federal judge, an originalist, dedicated to understanding and carrying out the intent of the framers of the Constitution. His name had been fun to say already in 1973, when as Nixon’s solicitor general he’d carried a machete in what’s now known as the Saturday Night Massacre, the sudden letting-go of three senior administration officials. That night in 1973, Frazell recalled, the word “bork” honked around the St. Pete newsroom “like the call of some wild bird.”

Four decades ago, then, to get hickeled was to get pummeled, and Bork did the borking. But hickeling fell out of use after President Nixon let Secretary Hickel go in 1970, and then there was just Walter Hickel, a successful developer and two-time governor of Alaska, a converted environmentalist who endorsed Sarah Palin. On his death two years ago, he merited an obituary in the New York Times but not an entry in any dictionary.

Not so Robert Bork, who moved from the White House to the federal appeals court in 1978 and developed a reputation for limiting access to the court. In 1982, after he sided with the majority in a decision against the NFL Players Association, its lawyer, Tim English, said, “We got borked.” Then, in July 1987, President Reagan nominated Bork for the Supreme Court. His nomination fight lasted 115 days, long enough that journalists began to refer to covering the hearings as “borking,” as in “I’ve been borking for six weeks now.” “Borkers” testified; a “borklette” was an anecdote.

During the fight, the late Ted Kennedy took the Senate floor to describe “Robert Bork’s America,” a charmless, segregated place, an intrusive police state with no recourse to justice. The speech worked, along with a broad public relations campaign to tar Bork as an unacceptable extremist. Reagan described it as a “lynch mob.” It worked. The Senate voted not to confirm Robert Bork, and he resigned his seat on the appeals court the next year. This is what we now understand as a “borking.”

The St. Petersburg Times’s Frazell was wrong in 1987 when he wrote that “to bork” would fade from memory, just like “to hickel.” With his passing today, Bork left behind three things: his life’s work, a new word, and a powerful symbol. The height of his fall—from the power of a Nixon bagman and talented constructionist to a failed nominee who endured, among other petty humiliations, the publication of a list of home videos he rented—explains why the word “bork” has stuck with us. Hickel was confirmed. Bork was not.

To conservatives, Bork was an unimpeachable jurist, ground down and defeated by politicians. By a Kennedy. The Texans have the Alamo, and the British the Light Brigade. Chicago has Wrigley Field. Conservatives have Robert Bork. To watch a good man fall bravely fills us with sad love and righteous fury. After his borking, Robert Bork remained as a totem: Never this loss again.

In June 2010, Bork spoke on a conference call for reporters against the Supreme Court nomination of Elena Kagan. She was an activist, he said, with the “inflated dreams” of a young lawyer. She had no experience on the bench. She lacked a “mature” view of the law. Americans United for Life, an anti-abortion group, sponsored that conference call, but not to hear from Robert Bork, respected jurist. They were presenting Robert Bork, living symbol. The first to get borked.

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