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Nominee's Strategists Overwhelmed : How Liberal Spectrum Fought to Block Bork

October 08, 1987|DAVID LAUTER and RONALD J. OSTROW | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Shortly after noon Wednesday, as Robert H. Bork entered an ornate office on the second floor of the Capitol with his wife at his side and his bearded chin jutting determination, 16 senators rose to their feet and began to cheer.

"Don't quit, don't quit," they shouted as they crowded around the stocky federal judge.

"A pep rally," one participant called it.

The senators--all Republican conservatives--kept on cheering as the meeting ended and they escorted the Borks out of the Capitol through the law library entrance. "I felt like an astronaut on 5th Avenue," said Tom C. Korologos, chief Republican lobbyist on the Bork nomination.

But the rally, if it buoyed Bork's spirits as its sponsors hoped, was an empty charade. Most of those who took part were convinced that the game already has been lost. Asked a few hours later if any chance remains, a rueful Korologos confessed: "Not any more. The thin thread is gone."

How did a Supreme Court nomination that seemed to promise everything American conservatives had dreamed about turn to ashes in just three months?

It is a story of pro-Bork strategists out-thought, outmaneuvered and outspent from the start by their liberal opponents. It is the story of a White House once again unable to resolve an internal schism that has dogged the Reagan Administration for seven years--the conflicting impulses of its ideological and pragmatic wings. And, at the end, it is the story of a weakened President hobbling headlong toward almost certain defeat.

Episode Renews Bitterness

It is also a historic episode that seems likely to leave as its legacy an emboldened Democratic majority in Congress and renewed bitterness among Republican conservatives, many of whom think that the fruits of the "Reagan revolution" have been stolen from them not so much by their liberal foes as by their moderate comrades.

And beyond the bare-knuckles political struggle, the Bork nomination came to pose for many Americans--and thus for many undecided senators--some fundamental questions about the role of the Supreme Court in the life of the nation and what people might want from it in the years ahead.

The answer seemed to be that Bork--an experienced jurist of unquestioned integrity, a legal scholar of acknowledged brilliance and a man admired for his unpretentious style and personal wit--was nonetheless, in the words of Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.), the wrong man at "the wrong time for the wrong place."

For both sides, the debate over putting Bork on the high court began months before Associate Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. announced his retirement.

As long ago as last summer, when he nominated Judge Antonin Scalia to the court, President Reagan sent a personal promise to Bork that he would be next, Administration and Senate sources say. On the other side of the battle, liberal senators, their staffs and the outside groups that had battled Reagan on civil rights and social policy issues throughout his Administration had been expecting a Bork nomination with a mixture of dread and anticipation.

In the days after Powell's June 26 retirement, White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. conducted an elaborate consultation process, visiting his former Senate colleagues and presenting them with a list of names under consideration. Several senior senators, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), say they warned Baker that a Bork nomination would be controversial.

Nor were all Republicans enthusiastic about Bork. Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, for example, pushed the name of his former aide William Wilkins, now a federal appellate judge on the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Va.

Wilkins' name was submitted to the FBI for a check, along with Bork and federal appeals court judges Patrick J. Higginbotham of Dallas and J. Clifford Wallace of San Diego. But, senators later complained, Baker seemed to be soliciting their advice without heeding it. As Thurmond later was told, the President had made a promise to Bork.

Reagan redeemed that promise on July 1, a Wednesday. But the Administration was already one step behind:

The opposition had started its campaign 24 hours earlier with a meeting on Tuesday morning, June 30, at the Washington office of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. It brought together representatives of roughly 45 organizations that would play central roles in the debate to come.

And, where the pro-Bork forces were divided between ideologues who wanted to make a crusade of it and moderates who wanted to pursue what they considered a more practical approach, the opposition quickly settled on an early strategy. It began calling reporters and Senate staff members with a single message: The Bork nomination would trigger an epic battle, and Bork could be defeated.

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