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Nonfiction in Brief

THE PEOPLE RISING The Campaign Against the Bork Nomination by Michael Pertschuk and Wendy Schaetzel (Thunder's Mouth Press: $24.95, cloth; $13.95, paper; 308 pp.)

December 10, 1989|SONJA BOLLE

The popular campaign waged over the summer of 1987 to defeat Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court was likened by some observers to a Neo-McCarthy witch hunt; others called it a clear example of grassroots democracy in action. The actual Senate rejection of Reagan's nominee, Michael Pertschuk and Wendy Schaetzel contend, was far less controversial than the "Block Bork" campaign, which transformed what might otherwise have been a rubber-stamp appointment into a national issue. "The People Rising" is the story of that campaign, and an engrossing story it is.

Basing their account on interviews with about 70 campaign organizers, the authors describe the formation of the umbrella coalition that brought together national groups with no previous history of cooperation. The first meetings occurred only days after Justice Lewis Powell's resignation; eventually more than 300 national groups would be involved. Through the "inside campaign" (lobbying by Washington veterans) and the "outside campaign" (the work of local grassroots organizers), the "Book of Bork" strategy was implemented. Bork's opponents reasoned that the more familiar politicians, the media and voters were with the nominee's own stated views, the more they would recognize his danger. The strategy was extremely effective. Arkansas senator David Pryor was perplexed by the deep division on the Bork issue among his constituents; he observed (the authors report) that the dividing line was that "Bork's opponents knew why they opposed him."

Far more than a history of a dead issue, "The People Rising" reads like a casebook of citizen activism. Curiously, the authors point out, it was in the interest of both right and left to credit the campaign with victory in Bork's rejection--for the right to do otherwise was to concede true political defeat. The authors further suggest that the campaign's overwhelming victory--which surprised even its organizers--as well as the alliances formed during the campaign have contributed to a revitalization of the left. Although the authors' sympathies with the campaign are obvious--even stated--this clear-eyed account should be of interest to anyone, friend or foe, who has reason to study how American liberals organize their campaigns.

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