With the September 18 passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court is (once again) at the forefront of our national conversation – right before the election. According to the Constitution, the president names a replacement judge and the Senate must approve the nominee. President Trump has promised swift action; the Senate appears to be on track to approve.
Still, the upcoming confirmation hearings could be brutal–and brutally dishonest. This reminds me of when I observed the power of a biased media and character-assassination to destroy someone’s career and mislead a nation.
It was the fall of 1987. As a recent William & Mary graduate, I had just launched my teaching career at a public high school in Richmond.
I was living with relatives, and they had a radio in their dining room where we often listened to the news. (Such was life before the internet!) On July 31 of that year, President Reagan had nominated Judge Robert Bork to join the US Supreme Court. Bork was eminently qualified for the job: he had served as Yale Law School professor and judge since 1982. However, Judge Bork was overall a conservative judge; that is, he sought to decide cases according to the Constitution and law, not by his own personal beliefs.
Many Democrats feared that Bork would tilt the 9-member Supreme Court too far to the right, so they sprang into attack mode. Within 45 minutes of Reagan’s nominating Bork, Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) took the Senate floor to denounce the decision in a televised speech. Kennedy spouted:
“Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, and schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.”
Bork fired back: “There was not a line in that speech that was accurate.”
Somehow, though, Kennedy’s attack took the Reagan White House by surprise. They dithered and lost several weeks until they bothered to mount an offense to defend their candidate, but by that time a national smear campaign had painted Bork as a right-wing extremist and threat to liberties everywhere.
During September and October, I listened to daily news updates on the confirmation process from National Public Radio (NPR). Daily I heard the opposition to Judge Bork led by Sens. Kennedy and Joe Biden, which NPR gleefully promulgated. But I noticed something. NEVER did I hear NPR mention this fact about Sen. Kennedy:
In 1969, at age 37 and married, he had driven his car into a pond on Martha’s Vineyard in the middle of the night and drowned campaign worker 28-year old Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy did not report the crash to the police until 10:00 am the next day. By then, of course no rescue for Kopechne was possible and any alcohol in Kennedy’s blood would have dissipated.
As a powerful Massachusetts political family, the Kennedys and their allies managed to spirit Kopechne’s corpse out of town and bury her swiftly in Pennsylvania before any autopsy was done. Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick scandal, named after the tiny island where the accident occurred, kept him from ever becoming president (although he came close in 1980).
However, for whatever reason, the voters of Massachusetts kept sending Kennedy back to the US Senate again and again, till he died in 2009. In fact, media commentators loved to call Kennedy “the lion of the Senate.” And thus, Kennedy used his perch in the Senate to keep Bork–a good and decent man–off the Supreme Court…while NPR and all the other major media outlets conveniently never mentioned Chappaquiddick. (For most readers today, 1969 sounds like “ancient history,” but it was only 18 years before the 1987 Bork hearings. In other words, Chappaquiddick was closer to 1987 than 9-11 is to us today!)
The three months of smears and character assassination did the trick: Judge Bork’s nomination was torpedoed, 58-42. This is yet another reminder that Senate elections matter, and so does media diversity. The Mainstream Media enjoyed a near-monopoly in 1987, so they could control the narrative and ignore anything that contradicted it. Thankfully today, we have more media voices (like the Roanoke Star!) to report more facets of a story.
If Senate Democrats try to smear and destroy whomever President Trump nominates to replace Justice Bader Ginsburg, remember the words of Yogi Berra: “It’s deja vu all over again.”
– Scott Dreyer