From time to time Michael Kinsley is worth reading, especially when he is in one of his iconoclastic moods that notes hypocrisy or double-standards. (His famous axiom that in Washington a “gaffe” is when someone unaccountably tells the truth about something is a keeper for the ages.) At other times, a nasty, petty and hackwork version of Kinsley shows up, making you wonder if he sometimes farms out his writing to some of the junior Kos Kids.
Today is one of those days. Kinsley’s latest Bloomberg column says all the blame for the partisan bitterness of our time should be laid at the feet of Ronald Reagan. He’s specifically responding to Joe Nocera’s recent New York Times column that correctly identified the Bork nomination as a key turning point in political bitterness. As Michael Barone said of Watergate, the Bork nomination is when “the rules changed” for judicial nominations, and it has warped judicial politics ever since. Kinsley tries to turn the tables by saying it was Reagan’s fault for nominating an “extremist” like Bork in the first place. And so, for instance, Kinsley writes:
At the time of his nomination, Bork had not written a single book about the Constitution. His entire oeuvre consisted of a few contradictory law review articles, pamphlets and lectures, along with a good book about antitrust.
This is disingenuous in the extreme. Note how Kinsley slides quickly over Bork’s massive work of groundbreaking scholarship, The Antitrust Paradox, by calling it a “good book.” It was more than just a “good book.” It was part of an intellectual revolution that completely changed our legal approach to antitrust (for the better, I believe Kinsley would agree). He leaves out that Bork co-taught constitutional law with the legendary Alexander Bickel at Yale Law School for many years. Most egregiously, Kinsley complains about Bork’s observation that his experience has led to the subsequent practice of nominating justices with scant paper trails:
If future presidents are going to continue the new tradition of nominating justices whose ideologies they think they know and like, the Senate will have to start a new tradition of insisting that judicial nominees reveal their beliefs about the Constitution in detail.
But that’s exactly what Bork did in several days of testimony in his hearings, patiently and reasonably explaining his views in detail. It was all used against him. And then Kinsley starts wandering aimlessly around the page: “Maybe Bork is right about some things. The point is that his theory of when you say yes and when you say no is complicated and subject to debate, just like everybody else’s. He hasn’t got it all figured out.” What the hell Michael: sounds like a person who’d make a good Justice to me.
It’s really not worth fisking the whole piece, which eventually reaches Kinsley’s real target: Terry Dolan’s NCPAC, the independent conservative group that bashed several liberal senators in 1980 and contributed significantly to their defeat, including George McGovern, Frank Church, and Birch Bayh. Kinsley doesn’t make a case against this kind of political activity. He’s obviously more angry because Dolan was a closeted homosexual who died of AIDs in 1986, and as we know, for a liberal your identity should determine your politics. No conservative gays allowed.
Of course, I think Kinsley and Nocera are both wrong. The bad behavior in our political life could be much more meaningfully attributed to the 1960s (“Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids. . .”), or, as I have argued here before, to FDR, who tried to make out that Republicans were the equivalent of Nazi fascists in that infamous 1945 state of the union. In case you missed it:
One of the great American industrialists of our day—a man who has rendered yeoman service to his country in this crisis-recently emphasized the grave dangers of “rightist reaction” in this Nation. All clear-thinking businessmen share his concern. Indeed, if such reaction should develop—if history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called “normalcy” of the 1920’s—then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home. (Emphasis added.)
In other words, even during wartime when the country was supposedly caught up on a spirit of unity for the war effort, Roosevelt exploited the war for partisan purposes. Roosevelt’s speeches like this are worth remembering when contemporary liberals claim “divisive” conservatives are “questioning their patriotism.”