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Remembering Robert Bork

Apr 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 30 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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The Scrapbook had the melancholy pleasure last week of attending a memorial service, at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, for Robert Bork, who died a few days before Christmas. Judge Bork was properly eulogized at the time, but his death has rekindled a new interest in and appreciation of his wide-ranging influence on legal philosophy and public policy. As was said of Learned Hand earlier in the last century, Robert Bork was undoubtedly the most influential lawyer of his time not to have served on the Supreme Court.

Robert H. Bork

This memorial service, however, was of another order. Certainly the highlights of Bork’s career were recalled, as well as the crucible of his nomination to the Court. But perhaps because the service was organized by his family, and attended by a gathering of friends and admirers, it was Bork the man, not Bork the legal scholar or public figure, who was fondly remembered. The speakers included former colleagues, ex-students-turned-professors, even an editor; and the talk was interrupted for a dozen minutes or so as a pianist played two eloquent preludes by Rachmaninoff.

The Scrapbook, for its part, was struck by two thoughts: first, that Robert Bork, although a “controversial” figure and controversialist in the public sphere, seems all his days to have kept politics and the business of life in sharp perspective. A passionate student and exponent of the law, he understood its relative importance in the scheme of things: There is more to life than public policy, and the first duty of a public figure is to be a good human being. Which leads to the second thought: For all his rigorous intellect, and formidable exterior, Robert Bork was a man of great good humor and personal charm, blessed with a healthy dose of humility, and dry wit.

Since the service took place in Washington, there was some emphasis on Judge Bork’s pivotal role in historic episodes, including Watergate; and at a later reception, no less than Chief Justice John Roberts lamented the loss to the country, and the disgrace of the U.S. Senate, when Bork’s Supreme Court nomination was defeated. Yet the underlying message of the service was sanguine, not mournful: A great and good man has passed from the scene, and the loss is profound. But Robert Bork’s life was a triumph in retrospect; even in Washington, greatness and goodness will attract a grateful multitude to fill a hotel ballroom to overflowing. 

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