Few people find themselves at the center of a political storm that acts as a pivot for history. Robert H. Bork, who died Wednesday in Arlington, Va., at the age of 85, was one of the unfortunate few.
Mr. Bork was a federal judge, a conservative legal scholar and a former U.S. solicitor general, but it was his 1987 nomination by President Ronald Reagan for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court that made him a lightning rod for controversy. The precedents set -- none of them good -- linger to this day.
Before Mr. Bork's nomination and confirmation hearing, bitter partisanship was never at the same level as after it. Before, a clear judicial record and a willingness to expound frankly on challenging legal theories were not necessarily a liability.
Today, candidates for the U.S. Supreme Court are better off having a bland and limited judicial record. Before the Senate Judiciary Committee, they know to play it safe and impart little sense of what they believe. Confirmation hearings have become mime shows before frustrated partisan inquisitors -- with the positions of the candidates implied only by the politics of the president who nominated them.
That this is the post-Bork way is blamed by conservatives on liberals who they say behaved badly during the Bork hearings. Certainly, the criticism of the nominee was sometimes over the top, as in a speech by Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who portrayed "Robert Bork's America" in almost apocalyptic terms about what would befall women, minorities and other citizens looking for justice or protection from rogue police.
But more than a few grains of truth existed in such critiques because Mr. Bork was in fact a terrible candidate -- a far-right-winger sent to replace a moderate justice, Lewis Powell. The irony is that Robert Bork was the one nominee who really deserved to be "borked" -- that is, treated harshly for his political leanings.
Asked why he wanted to be on the top court, he tellingly replied that it would be an "intellectual feast." He was a jurist whose considerable intellect was not in the service of ordinary Americans thirsting for justice; he was more concerned about conforming to grand theories of strict constructionism. His head ruled his heart.
In the end, Robert Bork was not confirmed. Those who opposed him won that battle but lost the war, because other justices cast from the same mold sit on the court today. The hometown boy -- he was a Pittsburgh native who attended Avonworth High School -- did not make good; his legacy is a troubled one.