I had forgotten about Robert Bork. It seems like a long, long time ago when he suddenly appeared on the US media radar screen as the Reagan nominee to replace Justice Lewis Powell on the US Supreme Court. Before discussing Bork, we should note that Powell had been known as a “swing vote” on the court - and a man who rarely took extreme positions. Bork was certainly different. He was treated roughly in Senate hearings because his views on judicial interpretation were considered to be too far from the mainstream. Then he was rejected. Some were offended. I was relieved.
The problem is that after Bork was rejected, we got Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito. These four have (in my view) similar views about constitutional interpretation to Bork. So I forgot about Bork.
But Linda Greemhouse reminded me today of the man and his tragic sense of entitlement to lead. Bork not only had strong views, but he had a messianic vision of their centrality to the fate of western man. Bork fervently believed that only Bork could save us from ourselves. But he was not allowed the chance. Bork thought this was tragic for western man. I said thank the Lord.
This interests me today for several reasons. First, I am reminded that Bork’s inflated sense of his own importance was not so unique. To the contrary, modern US conservatism has at its core a strong evangelical quality. Reagan used this to great political advantage. But by now we see more clearly how this sense of “my way or the highway” is destroying the movement.
Second, I am reminded of the controversial nature of Bork’s leadership model. Bork believed in laying out a clear vision for the future. As John Kotter has said over and over again, this is what leaders are supposed to do. That way, we can see more clearly which visions to embrace and which to reject.
I would agree. But we are not so used to this. We are more used to management. Managers deal with complexity and functionality, less so with vision. This is nicht gut when we need to see where we are going. And I agree with Kotter that it is dangerous to confuse good management with good leadership. They are very different.
Applying this, Europe is “managing” the Euro crisis. But where is Europe going? Who knows. The US is “managing” the Afghan exit strategy, but where is this taking us in a strategic sense? I am not sure I want to think about that.
Get the point?
But back to Bork for one last point. Bork’s main argument was that US jurisprudence had veered too far away from primary textual sources. He argued therefore that “original intent” should guide interpretation of the US constitution and that any other method was illegitimate. It is a strong view, and oddly it tends to strip legal institutions of any leadership responsibility for the results of law. That responsibility is shoved back on the shoulders of political actors. Is this tenable? The debate still rages and perhaps will not be settled in our life times.
But we might take note of the practical danger of allocating power to institutions that have limited accountability for what they do. And we might be careful that in rejecting figures like Bork, we do not also denigrate the value of leadership in general.