It’s not every jurist who lives to see a neologism made of his last name. To bork means, in U.S. political parlance, to defeat a judicial nomination through a relentless attack on the candidate’s character and creed. But Robert Heron Bork, love him or hate him, was no ordinary jurist.
His legacy is complicated. A pathbreaking scholar in the field of antitrust law and one of the original constitutional originalists. An apparatchik of the Nixon administration and a conservative culture warrior. An iconic hero to America’s right and a byword for reactionary ugliness among America’s left. Given all this it’s hardly surprising that the legal battles he picked on his way to his ill-fated Supreme Court nomination — most notably over abortion — helped define the boundaries of a generation of political discourse, high and low, in his country’s life. It’s important, too, to remember that his drubbing proved an archetype of the modern Senate confirmation fight, something many observers of U.S. politics have had public occasion to wish undone, no matter their political allegiance.
It’s been claimed repeatedly over the past decade that U.S. politics has reached heretofore unknown levels of polarization. Bork’s own professional history should give the lie to the claim, whatever other inheritance it leaves us. After all, you can’t have proper partisanship without a solid borking every six to twelve months.