Remembering Robert Bork, Failed Supreme Court Nominee, in the Pages of TIME

How the failed Supreme Court nominee was viewed in the pages of TIME

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Robert Bork was perhaps most famous for the job he never had. The Yale Law professor and former appellate court judge was a conservative darling who faced one of the most contentious, high-profile battles for confirmation to the nation’s highest court. The scruffy, wire-haired, deeply intellectual Bork gained first made his name in Washington when, as Nixon’s Solicitor General in 1973, he unapologetically fired the special prosecutor looking into the Watergate break-ins, Archibald Cox, in the so-called Saturday Night Massacre. He later served as Attorney General and D.C. Circuit Court judge.

While Ronald Reagan‘s previous two appointments to the bench — Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981 and Antonin Scalia in 1986 — had sailed through, a newly elected Democratic majority in the Senate took up arms against Bork’s conservative stances on everything from abortion to civil rights to the death penalty. The bitter, 12-day fight coined a verb, “to bork” — describing Senate Democrats’ hounding of the candidate into withdrawing — and set the tone for decades of pitched confirmation battles to come.

(OBITUARY: Robert Bork, Whose Failed Nomination Made History, Dies)

While little was written about him both before and after the 1987 hearing, the borking of Bork was covered extensively in the pages of TIME. Here’s a look at what the magazine said at the time:

On Bork’s excitement to escape New Haven:

Robert Bork grew more and more impatient to get to Washington. He had taught at Yale Law School for more than a decade, and Washington, he told friends, was “going to be pure pleasure.” It would offer “a lot of intellectual fascination.”

— Bork: A Professor Caught in the Storm (Nov. 5, 1973)

On his appearance:

With a resonant baritone voice that rumbles out of a burly figure topped off by a scraggly helmet of gray hair and an untidy beard, Bork commands attention by sound and sight. After 34 years as lawyer, professor, author and judge, this bear of a man has a professional reputation that tends to portray him as straitlaced, rigid, predictable.

— Catching The Last (July 13, 1987)

On how Senate Democrats and Republicans viewed him:

Judge Robert Bork, the fire-breathing right-wing ideologue who would wreak havoc on U.S. law, did not show up at the Senate Caucus Room last week. Neither did Robert Bork, the quick-witted charmer, “the bearded Ollie North,” who would obliterate his opposition.

— A Bork Without the Bite (Sept. 28, 1987)

(COVER: Robert Bork, Advise and Dissent)

On his mementos:

As a gift when Robert Bork was named Solicitor General, his Yale law students gave him a construction worker’s hard hat with his new title on it. That was in 1973, when a hard hat still symbolized the bareknuckle school of conservatism. Bork’s own methods of persuasion are a good deal less belligerent, but the joke was to the point. He had built his reputation as a legal hard-liner, both for his narrow reading of the Constitution and for the conservative results of such analysis. When he moved later into the offices of a federal judge, he brought the hard hat with him.

— The Law According to Bork (Sept. 21, 1987)

On keeping his sense of humor:

A jovial man whose company is enjoyed even by ideological foes, Bork amiably uses smiles and quips to soften his forcefully expressed views. After a Justice Department official commented that a certain decision would be made “over my dead body,” Bork noted, “To some of us, that sounded like the scenic route.”

— A Long and Winding Odyssey (Sept. 21, 1987)

On keeping to the Constitution, and close to Reagan’s heart:

Although Reagan is not well acquainted with his new nominee, he is thoroughly comfortable with Bork’s judicial philosophy. The operative terms of Bork’s legal vocabulary are “strict” and “narrow.” Rights must appear in the text of the Constitution before they can be enforced by the court.

— The Battle Begins (July 13, 1987)

On the fight over his confirmation:

By the time Bork begins testifying before the Judiciary Committee on Sept. 15, hundreds of liberal and conservative groups will have spent more than $20 million to promote their sharply different pictures of Bork.

— Defining The Real Robert Bork (Aug. 24, 1987)

On his Conservative allies:

Thus, to a great many people around the country, the Bork confirmation struggle is nothing less than a fight for the soul of American society. Evangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson speak of a Bork appointment as a kind of salvation for a morally misguided Supreme Court.

— Advise and Dissent (Sept. 21, 1987)

(ARCHIVE: Bork, A Professor Caught in the Storm)

On taking widespread flak from the left:

Bork’s opponents, in the meantime, were putting together a megacoalition of civil rights, women’s and liberal groups for a vigorous public crusade against him. Some of the attacks involved distortions of his record and implications that he was personally biased against blacks and women. But the most significant factor in Bork’s defeat was the unified and vigorous efforts of local black leaders in the South.

— The Road to Bork’s Last Stand (Oct. 19, 1987)

On his attempts to counteract the campaign against his confirmation:

Amid the turmoil surrounding his nomination, Bork has continued his visits with key Senators, tirelessly explaining his stands on legal issues, struggling to convince lawmakers that he is the right man for the Supreme Court.

— Gone With the Wind (Oct. 12, 1987)

On the Supreme Court’s perceived ineffectiveness:

In his opinion, the court’s ability to end inequities and solve social problems is vastly overrated. Its efforts strain its authority, lowering the law to just another element in the power struggle.

— Enter Professor Bork (Oct. 1, 1973)

On Reagan’s next nominee:

Throughout his short but illustrious career, Judge Douglas Ginsburg has shown a knack for staying above the fray. … Last month, as one Senator after another denounced Bork’s ideological views, the President promised that his next nominee would be just as objectionable to liberals as Bork had been. Reagan may have made good on his promise. [Ginsburg later withdrew from consideration due to controversy over his past marijuana use.]

— If At First You Don’t Succeed (Nov. 09, 1987)