Sunday, August 30, 2009

Was Bork a Precedent?

Rod Dreher deserves quite a lot of credit in my book for being willing to take take on the crazies who call themselves conservatives these days. Besides that, he's a thoughtful and interesting thinker -- liberals who are looking for non-crazy conservatives should read him (as should, naturally, conservatives).

But...and you knew a but was coming...the idea that Ted Kennedy began the politics of personal destruction with his speech on the Senate floor attacking Robert Bork is, well, really silly.

First: once can certainly argue that Kennedy deserved what he got, but Senator Edward M. Kennedy was on the receiving end of a couple of decades worth of the politics of personal destruction before he got around to opposing Bork for the Supreme Court. This included the President of the United States of America hiring a private eye to shadow him and report back anything that could be used against him. Robert Bork was justifiably irate that someone (not Kennedy, or Senator, or any of the array of interest groups that took a serious role in attacking Bork; IIRC, it was an idiot journalist) tried to find out what movies he rented, but Kennedy received much worse treatment from a president. That was before Kennedy did something to justify personal attacks...suffice to say that conservatives and Republicans did not hesitate to remind the world of Ted Kennedy's moral failures in the harshest terms.

Second: by 1986, Newt Gingrich had been in the House of Representatives for eight years. I think it's safe to say he probably made a personal attack or two over those eight years.

The NYT blog that Dreher refers to doesn't say that Kennedy initiated personal attacks, only that he played a key role in bringing that sort of politics to Supreme Court nominations. I think that's clearly not true; without going back to the misty reaches of time, Abe Fortas and both defeated Nixon nominees all faced personal attacks. Kennedy's speech against Bork, although certainly very harsh, was cast in purely policy and ideological tones. Kennedy's argument throughout the Bork process was that the Senate is entitled to reject a nominee if he or she is out of the "mainstream," whatever that is. That point of view has indeed been adopted by most of the Senate, left and right, in the subsequent decades, and I think on balance that's a good thing. It's reasonable for opposite-party Senators to use their confirmation powers to convince presidents to send up more moderate nominees. Either way, casting Kennedy as the instigator of personal attack politics is just plain wrong.

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