A lot of people will be writing, today, about how amazing a jurist Robert Bork was – and he was amazing. Some would consider him America’s leading scholar on Constitutional jurisprudence: a brilliant man who probably understood the operation of the rights listed in the document better than anyone. Some would also consider him one of the most unfairly treated Presidential nominees, as he suffered a vicious character assassination at the hands of the one man from whom it would be most ironic, Ted Kennedy.
This morning, Robert Bork passed away from a chronic pulmonary condition, at age 85.
Family members said Bork, 85, died early Wednesday morning. He had a history of heart problems and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung condition.
His funeral is scheduled for Saturday.
…President Ronald Regan nominated Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987. In a 58-to-42 vote, the Senate rejected his nomination — it was by one of the widest margins in U.S. history.
Republicans have long said his defeat was a completely partisan move and have said Bork was one of the greatest conservative figures in history.
The last line is a little polarizing. And I’m not here to talk the polarization of the process. I’m here to talk about the fact that I knew this guy, and this obit doesn’t do him justice, and not just because he was a pretty fantastic professor, which he was.
I had Judge Bork for Moral Foundations of the Law during my first year at Ave Maria Law School. The class wasn’t particularly enlightening – nothing you take your first year of law school really is, until you can cut through the crippling fear of making a complete ass out of yourself by repeatedly making a complete ass of yourself – but Judge Bork himself was, when he wasn’t clearing his through loudly in the miniature microphone they force law profs to wear. From Judge Bork, I learned that necrophilia was the perfect example of a moral law against a victimless crime, that ordering a martini with an olive in it was akin to ordering your drink with a side salad, and that lawyers could argue for hours over whether it was appropriate to eat a fellow traveler if you were waylaid indefinitely, even if there was a chance you might be rescued.
The answer? Always eat the lawyer first. It’ll be quieter.
I was fortunate, enough, though, to know Judge Bork better as a person than a professor, primarily because I liked to study outside, and the man smoked like a chimney, especially when his wife wasn’t around. So Judge Bork and I would sit on benches while he sucked down cigarette after cigarette talking about Ronald Reagan, the demise of the modern justice system, and his various reasons for hating most everyone he met – or at least it seemed like it. He thought deeply, even when the subject wasn’t deep, which means he had an explanation for nearly everything. Luckily for me, I wasn’t so much interested in his explanation of Constitutional law, so he occasionally consented to me talking to him.
Like most modern geniuses, he also had his quirks, which being a professor in a school of barely 300 will bring to light rather quickly. Robert Bork had a morning ritual, on days his wife Mary Ellen (or Saint Mary Ellen, as everyone came to know her, because she really is one of the nicest and most tolerant women alive) stayed in DC, was to walk down the hall from his office with a cigarette in one hand and a frosted doughnut in the other. Occasionally, he sported trucker hats with his suit. Not like the kind you buy in gas stations, but the kind of Ashton Kutcher-style trucker hats that have the mesh in back, like the kind you get for free when you buy your first John Deere tractor for mowing the back 40. And one time, at a picnic to celebrate the law school’s Fifth Anniversary, Robert Bork noticed a pile of fried chicken I assume that he figured his wife wouldn’t let him have. So he opened the sewn-shut pockets of his suit jacket and stuffed wads of greasy drumsticks inside. For later. Or at least until Mary Ellen noticed the grease stains near his waistline.
One thing about Robert Bork, though, was how much he loved his place at the crossroads of history. I might have dozed off once or twice during his lectures on the bastardization of the the concept of privacy as it was wrongly enshrined in the Constitution’s penumbras and emanations (so, at least I paid a little attention), but never during his incredibly witty and detailed accounts of things like the Saturday Night Massacre, which he retold to myself and a few others after we sneaked a bottle of wine from another law school party to his office. Bork had been an unwilling participant – called to fire Archibald Cox as Solicitor General and acting head of the Justice Department in the middle of the night after the heads of the first two Attorneys General had rolled – and he talked about the anguish he felt as he discussed what he’d been called by the President to do with his then wife, Claire. He told the story to each successive class, I understand, on their final day of Moral Foundations of the Law, probably as a reward for listening politely to the thoughts of a real genius, and for having our inflated egos brushed aide by a man who really knew what he was talking about.
So rest in peace, Judge Bork. And thanks for everything.