Twenty years ago - on October 23, 1987 to be precise - the darkest day in America's post-Watergate history occurred and changed forever the course of government in the United States. If you wonder why we have folks calling for the impeachment of the President now, sit back and read how we got here. For it was 20 years ago today that it all began.
On July 1, 1987, President Ronald Reagan got a chance to nominate a third justice to the United States Supreme Court due to the retirement of Justice Lewis Powell. Reagan nominated a man whose name now lives in infamy as a verb describing the tactics used to defeat him: Judge Robert Bork. A stuffy intellectual with a goofy beard, Robert Bork was the most publicly crucified public servant in the post-Watergate era. He was eminently qualified having written new law and having never had a single decision overturned by the Supreme Court. But in the new world of judicial politics, the Democrats were now running the show. In the fall of 1986, they had recaptured the Senate and, consequently, control of judicial nominations. Reagan was also watching his Presidency get dragged through the mud caused by the Iran-Contra scandal. But having campaigned on a promise to remake the federal judiciary in 1980, Reagan acted on his convictions. And incredibly enough, it was a man who escaped conviction for anything more than leaving the scene of an accident (along with a dead body) who destroyed Bork: Senator Edward Moore Kennedy, bona fide member of the Lucky Sperm club.
Moments after Reagan announced Bork's nomination, Kennedy called a press conference and delivered a scathing speech, declaring that Bork would force women to have abortions in back alleys, deny the teaching of evolution in schools, and force blacks and whites to eat at separate lunch counters. It was a five-star performance, coming from a man who used his name to get to the top, his connections to stay out of jail, and his hypocrisy to make the arguments regarding the unfitness of Robert Bork for the Supreme Court. Bork was painted as a right-wing fanatic who was opposed to birth control and had suggested women get sterilized if they wanted to work at a chemical plant that exposed them to dangers during pregnancy. Kennedy - again of all people - stated that Bork held 'cruel stereotypes' of women in society.
Bork was obviously a bigger man than I would have been. If Kennedy would have said that about me, I would have said, "Let's consider the number of women I've killed: zero. How does your own record compare?"
From October 23, 1987 when the Senate destroyed Bork by a 58-42 vote, politics in America has never been the same. With two brief exceptions - the first Gulf War and 9/11 - the partisan bickering has never subsided as each side attempts to destroy the other. In the process, they may destroy America.
The first retaliatory strike was fired in 1988 by Vice-President George Bush. Bush ran probably the most successful negative campaign in American history, tearing into Michael Dukakis as a sympathizer of murder as well as an unpatriotic governor. Bush used many of the same 'cut and paste' (though that term didn't exist in those pre-Windows days) quote techniques and position twists to demolish Dukakis and win his way into the White House.
The Democrats, of course, got mad. And they decided they were going to make Bush pay for it. They demolished his nomination for Defense Secretary, former Senator John Tower, by accusing him during the nomination hearing of being a drunken lush and womanizer, two characterstics that none of those serving in the Senate would ever embody (insert Teddy Kennedy punchline here). And perhaps they should have stopped there because the Democrats wound up making a fateful decision with enormous ramifications for future generations - all because they had a score to settle with the President.
When Tower went down, Bush named his second choice as Defense Secretary, a then unknown Wyoming congressman named Dick Cheney. Without their engaging in such childish antics, we would never have had Vice-President Cheney, and who knows? We just might never have gone to Iraq the second time.
But the Republicans, now losing 2-1 in the game 'Whose Life Can We Destroy?' got even when an unknown Republican whip from Georgia named Newt Gingrich filed ethics charges against the top two Democratic leaders in the House, Speaker Jim Wright and House Majority Leader Tony Cohelo. Both were exporters of 'sleaze,' and Gingrich managed to destroy both of them in a very short period of time. This made Gingrich feared, but it also made him a target.
In 1991, the war kicked off again when Democrats once again decided to smear the reputation of another Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas. Whatever the truth was about the allegations of sexual harrassment, there is another uncomfortable truth: Thomas was presumed guilty and forced to assert his innocence. What is even more ironic is that the same liberals who went after Bork for his alleged lack of compassion went after Thomas on the basis that he was not 'scholarly.' But, of course, if they wanted scholarly, they could have supported Bork. Thomas emerged from the battle confirmed but scarred. (In yet another irony, Thomas was sworn onto the bench on October 23, 1991, four years to the day after the end of the Bork battle.
As long as the Democrats had the power to appoint indepenent counsels, they could usually win the battles over ethics. They only lost the Wright/Coehelo wars because both had been so adamant in protesting their innocence while firing allegations of sleaze at others such as Reagan's Attorney General, Ed Meese. But on November 8, 1994, the voters revoked the lease the Democrats had on the Legislative branch and sent a new crew to Washington led by the man with two notches on his gun, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. And suddenly the battle got even more bizarre.
Having destroyed two Democrats personally as well as having guided the Republicans to storming the embassy and taking over, Gingrich was an easy target for Democrats to hate. As Speaker for slightly less than four years, they made his life utterly miserable, filing numerous ethics charges and ultimately forcing him to take a loan from Senator Bob Dole to pay his Congressionally imposed fines. Gingrich was destroyed, ironically, not by Democrats but by Republicans angry with his mismanagement of the 1998 mid-term elections. No sooner had Gingrich gone down than his appointed successor, Bob Livingston, resigned when Larry Flynt exposed Livingston as a moral hypocrite who had had extramarital affairs while in office.
The Republicans, now in charge of the independent counsel, spent a decade getting even with Democrats by concentrating their fire on the most prominent target: President William Jefferson Clinton. And to a large degree, they succeeded at thoroughly embarrassing him. It is true, of course, that they did not fully destroy him or drive him from office, but there is no doubt their efforts were rewarded in 2000 when President George W. Bush was elected by the narrow margin of one Supreme Court vote.
And in what is nothing less than a delicious irony, they were forced to swallow Dick Cheney as a Vice-President. And in the summer of 2007, complaints were made were made about the 'five Roman Catholics' who were solidly against abortion. Of course, none of them bothered to mention that if they had allowed Bork to be nominated, it would have replaced one of the Roman Catholics (Kennedy) with an agnostic. Republicans also had to swallow when their efforts made Clinton so prominent that his wife coasted to a United States Senate seat and immediately moved to the front of the line for the Democratic nomination for President.
It all started with the character assassination of Robert Bork. It may well end in the self-inflicted murder of American society due to the political tit for tat. Hopefully, the Hatfields and McCoys will soon stop the war.