Conservative political figure Robert Bork died Wednesday in Arlington, Va., at age 85.
A contentious political force, notable for his failed bid for Supreme Court justice under President Ronald Reagan, Bork was seen mainly in two lights: a conservative legal hero and a maligned puppet of corrupt inside politics. He was one of President Richard Nixon’s hatchet men, but also an influential law scholar who was remembered across the board.
“Bork, of course, will be lionized by the right-wing media today as the victim of most intense liberal witch hunt of the century, and that is how the conservative side will always remember him,” Michael Tomasky wrote for The Daily Beast.
Adam Freedman at Fox News called Bork one of the nation’s “most influential legal scholars,” adding, “Bork’s legacy is one not of failure, but of overwhelming success. … Bork is one of a handful of jurists who succeeded in changing the way in which Americans view our supreme law: the Constitution.”
On the other hand, John Cook wrote a scathing memoriam for Gawker under the headline, “Robert Bork Was a Terrible Human Being and No One Should Grieve His Passing.” In it, Cook writes: “Robert Bork should be remembered as coward and sycophant. The fact that he persisted in public life, and continued to garner praise from conservative circles for his ideas, is an indictment of a corrupt and blind political culture.” Cook mainly points to Bork’s assistance to Richard Nixon in obstructing the Watergate investigation from federal prosecutors.
The New Yorker echoed the sentiments of many obituaries, to say that Bork’s Supreme Court hearings changed modern politics: “More than any other event of the Reagan years,” Joshua Rothman wrote for the magazine, “the Bork hearings emphasized how that Administration’s approach to the law was the opposite of seeking consensus — how it sought to polarize American society.”
In a second New Yorker piece, Jeffrey Toobin remembered Bork as “an unrepentant reactionary who was on the wrong side of every major legal controversy of the twentieth century.”
Remembering that Bork’s name become a common verb, meaning to, “obstruct (someone, esp. a candidate for public office) through systematic defamation or vilification,” Brendan Greely wrote for Bloomberg Businessweek. “With his passing today, Bork left behind three things: his life’s work, a new word, and a powerful symbol.”
And for Slate, Michael McConnell waxed on an alternate legacy for Bork: “No one knows how the judicial history of the United States would have changed if Robert Bork had been confirmed. But it is very likely that the court would be less politicized and more deeply committed to the rule of law. It certainly would have been graced by his intellect, humor, and judicial temperament.”
“Robert Bork was one of the most influential legal scholars of the past 50 years,” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said in a statement. “His impact on legal thinking in the fields of antitrust and constitutional law was profound and lasting. More important for the final accounting, he was a good man and a loyal citizen. May he rest in peace.”
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