Robert Bork redux

The conservative icon, who is suing the Yale Club, feels the love from his fellow travelers.

By Julia Dahl

Published June 26, 2007 9:49PM (EDT)

It has been 20 years since his contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearings, but Robert H. Bork, it seems, is back.

Somehow, the 80-year-old conservative judge, author and intellectual has managed to land in the spotlight several times this month. On June 7, the tort reform crusader who has derided the "lottery-like windfalls" in civil lawsuits, filed a $1 million lawsuit of his own against the Yale Club of New York City after he slipped and fell while stepping up to a club lectern to deliver a speech. Then, on June 11, the Washington Post revealed that Judge Reggie Walton had added a footnote to his order sentencing Scooter Libby to 30 months in prison ridiculing the 12 "prominent and distinguished" professors, including Bork and Alan Dershowitz, who submitted a last-minute brief asking the court to spare Scooter the pokey.

And today, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. EDT, Bork was feted by the Federalist Society. The event, attended by about 200 people at $100 a head, included speakers such as Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese and University of California at Berkeley professor John Yoo.

The mood was jovial. In fact, when Cornell professor Jeremy Rabkin encountered Yoo before their panel on Bork's most recent book, "Coercing Virtue," Rabkin extended his hand and exclaimed, "Dr. Torture!" in a lighthearted, if pointed, allusion to Monday's Washington Post article describing Yoo's role in crafting the Bush administration's detainee interrogation policy.

Bork's current affairs were officially ignored by most speakers, but attendees -- a dark suit and pantyhose bunch -- couldn't help whispering about the latest adventures of the man whose name has become, as Meese put it, "a noun, a verb and an adjective." Federalist Society president Eugene Meyer joked that he'd had a passing worry the guest of honor might be wary of speaking in ballrooms for fear of his past injury rate. When George Priest, who took over Bork's antitrust class at Yale Law School, admitted that Bork routinely said horrible things about Yale, and "has now added the Yale Club" to his list, he got a muted chuckle from a clearly uncomfortable crowd. How do you respond, exactly, when your hero has seemingly committed public hypocrisy by embracing the civil lawsuits he once opposed? One choice would be to fall back on nostalgia, which in Bork's case entails looking back fondly on his thwarted nomination to the Supreme Court.

"Bork was savaged because he was honest," said Jonathan Turley of George Washington Law School. "His hearings were refreshingly truthful, direct and substantive," the opposite, as he sees it, of the "contentless" confirmation of John Roberts, who Turley described as looking as though he were "raised hydroponically in the basement of the White House."

Priest, who called it "a badge of honor" to testify on behalf of Bork back in 1987, said he thought that the failure of Bork's nomination was not about Bork's views or qualifications but, rather, "a function of the weakness of the president." (Ronald Reagan was embroiled in Iran-Contra around the time of Bork's hearings.)

"It's quite similar to what we see today in the example of John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz and perhaps soon Alberto Gonzales," said Priest. "The president is weak because of the failure of the Iraq war," and his nominees bear the burden of the weakness that unpopularity exposes.

When Bork finally did speak -- in a James Lipton-style heart-to-heart after lunch -- he was straightforward and sarcastic, recalling his wild youth (he was a socialist at 15) and his social life (his wife used to be a nun), and musing about a possible book on martinis (apparently he has an issue with the olives). And though there was no audible sigh of relief, it's safe to say that the adoring audience was glad to see that, with the help of several family members and his cane, he managed to avoid injury as he gingerly ascended and then descended the dais.

Julia Dahl

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