[Posted by Karl]
The New York Times — and Joe Nocera’s column specifically — is not a place you would expect to mark the 24th anniversary of the Senate’s rejection of Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court as a bad thing. Nocera writes that Bork’s views “cannot be fairly characterized as extreme” and that “[t]he Bork fight, in some ways, was the beginning of the end of civil discourse in politics.” He describes the left’s approach to the fight:
There was tremendous fear that if Bork were confirmed, he would swing the court to the conservatives and important liberal victories would be overturned — starting with Roe v. Wade.
But liberals couldn’t just come out and say that. “If this were carried out as an internal Senate debate,” Ann Lewis, the Democratic activist, would later acknowledge, “we would have deep and thoughtful discussions about the Constitution, and then we would lose.” So, instead, the Democrats sought to portray Bork as “a right-wing loony,” to use a phrase in a memo written by the Advocacy Institute, a liberal lobby group.
The character assassination began the day Bork was nominated, when Ted Kennedy gave a fiery speech describing “Robert Bork’s America” as a place “in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters,” and so on. It continued until the day the nomination was voted down; one ad, for instance, claimed, absurdly, that Bork wanted to give “women workers the choice between sterilization and their job.”
Conservatives were stunned by the relentlessness — and the essential unfairness — of the attacks. But the truth is that many of the liberals fighting the nomination also knew they were unfair. That same Advocacy Institute memo noted that, “Like it or not, Bork falls (perhaps barely) at the borderline of respectability.” It didn’t matter. He had to be portrayed “as an extreme ideological activist.” The ends were used to justify some truly despicable means.
Unsurprisingly, Nocera’s column is itself under attack in the leftosphere from hacks like Steve Benen, who implicitly concedes in his relativism that he is incapable of evaluating Bork’s jurisprudence, but argues that the characterization of Bork as “extreme” is justified based on his policy disagreement with Bork’s positions. Benen either does not know or does not care that Bork sometimes did not personally hold the positions Democrats ascribed to him, or that Bork’s legal positions were shared by Justices Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, John Marshall Harlan II, Louis Brandeis, and Benjamin Cardozo, among others. There are principled objections to be made to Bork’s jurisprudence — I recall making some myself at the time — but the attacks on Nocera’s column stem from the same “ends justify the means” philosophy at the core of the attacks on Bork himself. (Perhaps Nocera ought to consider that such distortions are a natural outgrowth of a philosophy that treats a constitution of limited powers as elastic enough to justify ordering people to buy certain products or services by virtue of living. But I digress.)
So why only two cheers for Nocera? After all, today’s column seems t0 reflect that Nocera has learned something from the criticism he got after comparing Tea Party Republicans to terrorists. The answer is that Obama’s re-elect strategy will almost certainly depend on demonizing the GOP’s eventual nominee as “extreme.” If Nocera is willing to criticize the politics of personal destruction in real time, as opposed to 24 years later, he will deserve that third cheer.