BOOK REVIEW: ‘Saving Justice’: Robert Bork’s Final Memoir Makes Me Appreciate Him Even More

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 
BOOK REVIEW: 'Saving Justice': Robert Bork's Final Memoir Makes Me Appreciate Him Even More
 A few minutes after I finished reading Robert H. Bork’s “Saving Justice: Watergate, the Saturday Night Massacre, and Other Adventures of a Solicitor General (Encounter Books, foreword by former attorney general Edwin Meese III, 200 pages, photographs, index, $23.99) Oliver Stone’s 1995 flick “Nixon” showed up on cable and we managed to watch the entire movie.

 It was a treat, as is every movie directed by Stone. While not always agreeing with Stone’s idiosyncratic approach to movie making, I never fail to find insights available nowhere else. There was archival footage of the red-bearded Pittsburgh native Bork and I was reminded of his crucial role as the designated hit man who — as acting attorney general —  fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox in 1973 during the “Saturday Night Massacre” segment of the Watergate incident.


Bork, who died at age 85 on Dec. 19, 2012, is one of my heroes, to the disgust of many of my liberal friends (yes, I have a few!). His savaging by Sens. Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden during the 1987 Supreme Court hearings made my recoil in disgust at members of my former party and confirmed  my decision in 1980 to vote for a Republican presidential candidate — Ronald W. Reagan — for the first time in my life. When I learned that his memoir was due to be published  this month by  Encounter Books, I told publicist Lauren Miklos to send me a review copy.


The savaging of this gentle and patriotic — he joined the Marine Corps at age 17 and served with distinction — appeals court judge and law professor  led   William Safire of The New York Times to  “possibly” attribute  the first use of ‘Bork’ as a verb to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of August 20, 1987. Safire defines “to bork” by reference “to the way Democrats savaged Ronald Reagan’s nominee, the Appeals Court judge Robert H. Bork.”
Bork, of German and Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, has a lot of fun with Richard Nixon’s reaction to his beard. Beards were unheard of in the Nixon administration when he reached out to Yale University to name Bork solicitor general, the No. 3 person in the Justice Department and the official responsible for handling appellate cases before the Supreme Court. Perhaps Nixon was sensitive to facial hair because of his five o’clock shadow — but probably more likely he associated beards with hippies, and his opponents. Given Nixon’s hatred of Ivy League professors, I was surprised that he picked Bork, but even his enemies are willing to concede that Nixon often chose outstanding people to his cabinet.


In June 1973,  Robert Bork was plucked from a quiet life of academia at Yale University and planted into the tumultuous soil of constitutional crisis by a Nixon Administration on the verge of collapse. From the ousting of Vice President Spiro Agnew  to the discharge of the Watergate Special Prosecutor, Bork recounts his personal experiences as a member of the Administration during the last half of 1973 and first few months of 1974. Bork also includes further reflections on his unsuccessful nomination to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan thirteen years later.


I have a long memory and forgiveness doesn’t come easily to me. Mea culpa! I rejected John McCain as a presidential candidate because of his involvement as a member of the Keating Five in the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s and I decided after 1987 that I would never support Ted Kennedy or Joe Biden in  any of their presidential or vice presidential campaigns.


Bork’s best friend and fellow Yale faculty member Alexander Bickel is a liberal, which shows the decency of Bork. According to the Wikipedia entry on “Bork”: “24 years after Bork’s nomination was rejected, in 2011, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera claimed that “[t]he Bork fight, in some ways, was the beginning of the end of civil discourse in politics… The anger between Democrats and Republicans, the unwillingness to work together, the profound mistrust — the line from Bork to today’s ugly politics is a straight one.” Nocera cited Democratic activist Ann Lewis who acknowledged that if Bork’s nomination “were carried out as an internal Senate debate we would have deep and thoughtful discussions about the Constitution, and then we would lose.”


Regardless of your political views, read “Saving Justice” for its contribution to political history. You may even change your view of Robert Heron Bork. 

About the author


Robert Heron Bork (March 1, 1927 – December 19, 2012) was an American legal scholar who advocated the judicial philosophy of originalism. Bork served as a Yale Law School professor, Solicitor General, Acting Attorney General, and a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In 1987, he was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan, but the Senate rejected his nomination. Bork had more success as an antitrust scholar, where his once-idiosyncratic view that antitrust law should focus on maximizing consumer welfare has come to dominate American legal thinking on the subject.

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