The Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Robert H. Bork had an important function beyond helping to shape the U.S. Supreme Court.
Presidents and their administrations are so expert at commanding attention on the evening news that it's easy to forget (if you don't have access to cable's C-SPAN channel) about the crucial, often dominant role that Congress plays in the federal government.
The hearings dramatically emphasized that role, as White House hopes for Bork's nomination to the high court seemed to fade gradually with each day's testimony before the senators.
A significant element of the hearings--live TV coverage--was unavailable to most of Los Angeles, unfortunately. The Bork proceedings were carried live almost to conclusion by Cable News Network, but not by KCET-TV Channel 28, which rejected a live feed that PBS provided to its member stations. KCET did buy and record the PBS feed so that it could be aired locally at 9:30 p.m. on KLCS-TV Channel 58, but that public-TV station has only limited reach.
KCET was among the vast majority of PBS stations failing to take advantage of this extraordinary opportunity to show living history. Fleeting excerpts from the hearings surfaced almost daily on most newscasts, and there were much longer ones on PBS' "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" (and on C-SPAN). But there was no substitute for watching this amazing political and ideological spectacle as it happened, full and complete, unfiltered by media editing. And what better role for public TV?
KCET had a tough decision to make but after considering airing the PBS feed, it went with its usual daytime educational programming instead. Oh boy.
What could be more educational in this 200th year of the Constitution, as one protesting viewer noted, than showing live coverage of the Bork hearings?
There's no telling whether wider TV exposure would have altered Bork's fate. At times, he appeared rigid and humorless before the committee, at other times, relaxed and engaging. Legal issues aside, he did not have the TV personality to mobilize public support merely by showing his mug on camera a la Ollie North.
Bork did have his occasional moments. But there are other people who just should never go on TV.
Some, like North, handle it like a dream. But poor Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is clearly overmatched by the camera.
He's slick, all right, but conspicuously slick, and the camera sees through him like an X-ray machine. His telegenic smile and a dollar will buy him a cup of coffee.
As everyone knows by now, Biden's presidential bid collapsed recently after disclosures that he plagiarized a British politician and publicly fibbed about his weak law school record.
Biden is obviously very sensitive about attacks on his character, intellect and academic credentials, and his attempts to balance the books by showing he has some brains come across on TV as calculated and transparent.
He was on ABC's "Nightline" Wednesday with Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), talking about the Judiciary Committee's negative recommendation on Bork.
Ted Koppel asked Biden if--in view of lethal attacks on Bork's published writings--future high court nominees would be recruited from the ranks of the unpublished, with little in the written record for potential opponents to exploit.
At the end of his answer, Biden tacked on this:
"And the last point I'll make on this, Ted, is that throughout our English jurisprudential history--particularly, in the (last) 100 years--there have been every 30 to 50 years, a new wave of jurisprudential thought in this country. It started at the turn of the century with Austin and Kant, and then you came along with Cardoza and Pound and Jerome Frank and all these. There's been an evolution in the process of how we view the Constitution. Judge Bork was either at the back end or the cutting edge, one or the other, of a new school of thought, and that's why he was so controversial."
For starters, any lawyer/politician who uses jurisprudential even once in a sentence should be disbarred. Twice and he gets strung up by his tongue.
Beyond that, however, Biden's pretentious lecture on legal philosophy came awkwardly out of nowhere, as if he was terribly eager to disprove his critics and display some knowledge before a national TV audience.
Look, Ma, I'm talking like a real jurisprudential scholar.
And finally, emerging from the hearings is this concept for a new sitcom: "Bork and Mindy." A beautiful woman marries an alien creature with strange ideas. Just a thought.
A HERO DIES--Cream sometimes sinks to the bottom--witness ABC's new "Once A Hero," which attracted a sparse audience before being axed this week after only three episodes.
Out of sight, but not out of mind--for this creative, sophisticated, witty, endearing Saturday night series from Dusty Kay, about a cartoon strip come to life, was truly memorable.