The Character Assassination of Robert Bork

By Eric Shiraev

Thirty years ago, in October 1987, the United States Senate rejected the nomination of Robert Bork (1927-2012) to the United States Supreme Court. President Ronald Reagan nominated Bork on July 1 of that year. Bork, a former acting Attorney General, was serving as a Federal Judge at the time of his nomination. Five years earlier the Senate unanimously confirmed him to the seat. This time, a strong Democratic Party’s resistance was promised and expected; it erupted immediately.

Just hours after the nomination, Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) declared in a greatly publicized speech that if Bork were confirmed, women “would be forced into back-alley abortions”, blacks would be forced to accept segregation in “lunch counters”, law enforcement agents would “break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids”, children would never learn about evolution in school, and artists “could be censored” by over-reaching federal authorities.

Other prominent Democrats joined the fierce criticism of Bork’s nomination and candidacy. Some of them focused on the nominee’s previous legal rulings as a judge. Others turned to the leaked list of the nominee’s rented movies, apparently looking for something incriminating in his individual entertainment preferences. Yet others pointed to Bork’s second marriage – to a Catholic woman – as proof of his presumed staunch opposition to abortion.

In short order, Bork’s opponents portrayed him in the colors of political metaphors and legalisms as a person who was not in the mainstream of America’s legal and political ideology. Bork’s opponents maintained that the nominee to the highest judicial bench was too far to the right of the political spectrum and thus not qualified to join the Supreme Court. His supporters, of course, disagreed. Many of them then believed that the attacks against Bork were personal, unfair, and even slanderous.

Which side is correct? Was the Bork case an example of character assassination? There is little doubt that Robert Bork, as a judge and a public figure, was socially and politically conservative. No doubt, his opponents relentlessly and even fiercely attacked his political and legal views. However, all the critical words the opponents used, the images they produced, the metaphors they coined — do these words and images qualify as typical character attacks? Or were they all legitimate, substantive criticisms of Bork’s political and social views?

This case is illustrative and teachable. As in most other cases we have studied so far, we try to clarify whether outspoken criticisms of another person’s behavior constitute a character attack. We try to distinguish a criticism of an individual’s policy or his or her ideological views from an attack on their character. Yet how do we judge these differences? Several criteria exist.

First, in a general sense, we should acknowledge that there is no clear demarcation or line between an attack against an individual’s character (consider a statement: “this person is a moron”) and legitimate criticisms of this person’s political platform or actual behavior (“this person maintains a restrictive view of the death penalty”). Studying character attacks is not about establishing a dichotomy (either this is a character attack or this is not). Rather, any character attack can be judged as a continuum—“strong”, “moderate”, or “mild”—based on what is attacked: personal characteristics, actions, or policies. This means that some criticisms and denunciations of Bork could contain some strong elements of a character attack, but not others. Some character attacks against him were strong, yet others were weak.

Second, we should carefully examine the motivation of the critics and key reasons for their attacks. If the critics’ intended a fair assessment of a political candidate, then we have little evidence to qualify these criticisms as character attacks. If there is evidence that the opposition intended to injure their target or opponent, there would be more reason to believe that Bork’s is a case of character assassination. In the Bork case, the Democratic opposition was predetermined to extinguish his nomination by all means available to them. Both parties in Washington are frequently determined to “devastate” their opponents regardless of their actual positions on social or political issues. Parties in other countries use similar tactics.

Third, the main focus should remain on the essence – the content – of the criticisms. If they overtly refer to the target’s personality traits, intrinsic qualities, such as honesty, conscientiousness, aggressiveness, openness to experience, dogmatism, etc., these are likely to be qualified as character attacks. If one person criticizes the other person’s political beliefs (such as “she stands for stricter gun laws” or “he voted against free trade agreements”) these words are not necessarily an attack on the individual’s character. However, if the attack portrays someone’s views as radical and extreme, this technique can bring an implicit character attack. It can be assumed (and should be empirically tested) that if I denounce my opponent’s views as radical and extreme, I implicitly portray that person as an extremist, which by definition implies intolerant, dogmatic, and often violent personality traits. Was the tactic of scaring people about “back-alley abortions” and creationism taught in schools an attempt to portray Bork as an extremist and therefore an implicit attack against his character?

Finally, we must consider the context and lasting impact of these statements on public perception of the target. In studying character attacks, we always pay attention to their context. This is what often determines how people perceive the attack and thus affects its effectiveness. It is often essential to see how the audience perceives the attack, what they remember in a particular case, how the general public sees the targeted individual, and his or her character features as a result of the attack. In Bork’s case, again, the “back-alley abortions” and segregationist “lunch counter” images were perhaps the most effective means to portray Bork as a person who was intolerant, angry, bigoted, fanatical, and incensed. These are, as we see them, character-related features.

Using these criteria, I suggest the following: the criticisms against Robert Bork can be qualified as a complex set of character attacks. I suggest three reasons for such a judgment.

  • Intent. The case of Robert Bork can be an example of a classical character attack because the criticisms of him appear premeditated and intentional. The opponents’ clear goal was to thwart his nomination by all means available.
  • Content. Although most criticisms of Bork referred to his legal decisions and political views, his interpretations of the law were described as too extreme – even reactionary. Associating someone’s views with extremism implicitly can portray the individual as an “extremist”, thereby ascribing an array of unacceptable traits to the target.
  • Context. Many criticisms of Bork should be viewed as character attacks due to the public’s perception of them; people tend to remember the most vivid arguments or criticisms. To this day, many observers – myself included – remember these arguments about back-alley abortions, and segregated lunch counters vividly, despite the passage of three decades.

3 thoughts on “The Character Assassination of Robert Bork

  1. Pingback: The Character Assassination of Robert Bork – Jennifer Keohane

  2. Pingback: CARP Digest [October 2017] – Character Assassination and Reputation Politics Research Lab

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