Babbitt may have to face risk of being 'Borked' Ordeal of former court nominee recalled

June 10, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- By the time President Clinton finally pick Bruce E. Babbitt for the Supreme Court -- if, in fact, he does -- the nominee just might have a public image that his own family would not recognize.

And if Mr. Clinton decides not to nominate Mr. Babbitt, one

reason could be the president's unwillingness to fight over that image.

Either way, Mr. Babbitt could conclude that he had been "Borked."

The word is not in the new 10th edition of "Webster's Collegiate Dictionary," just out last month, but it will be in the next edition of National Textbook Co.'s "Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions," according to that book's author and now the company's dictionary director, Richard A. Spears. The word, he says, "has jumped from a fad word to almost a standard word so quickly."

"Borked" or "being Borked" is well understood in political Washington: it means that another nominee has been sketched in a negative portrait, with lines drawn from past writings or speeches -- or from the silent eloquence of what was not written or said.

It may be happening to Mr. Babbitt this week as Senate Republicans and conservatives raise questions about his record a former governor of Arizona and a 1988 presidential candidate, and even about his brief service as interior secretary.

Just two days ago, Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas gave the process its familiar label as he assessed Mr. Babbitt as a potential Supreme Court nominee.

"We're checking right now on what he [Mr. Babbitt] may have said or he may have written. . . . We always have concerns about what people may have written," Mr. Dole told reporters. "You remember Robert Bork?"

That was, of course, a reference to former U.S. Circuit Judge Robert H. Bork, defeated for a Supreme Court seat in 1987 after a brutal lobbying and advertising campaign based on some very controversial things he had written, mainly while he was a law professor at Yale.

Some believe that the phenomenon now engulfing Mr. Babbitt began with Mr. Bork's experience, including Terry Eastland, who was the Justice Department spokesman at the time and one of Mr. Bork's defenders.

Now a resident fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center here and a scholar on the Supreme Court nomination process, Mr. Eastland says that "what was new about the Bork nomination was that a nominee for the court was treated as if he were someone running for public office, subjected to the techniques that modern politics employs."

Though the attack on Mr. Bork was mounted by liberal interest groups, their techniques are now being used by conservative interest groups, Mr. Eastland says.

'Borking' defined

Essential to "Borking," in Mr. Eastland's view, is that a nominee's legal writings are boiled down -- "or distorted" -- to a level that can be understood by a wide popular audience, and the nominee is "put on the defensive." If the nominee tries to explain away the interpretation, "it's too late: you've been 'Borked,' " Mr. Eastland suggests.

The process works best, he says, when the nominee gives a legalistic answer, because the public doesn't understand it. "In 1988, George Bush managed to 'Bork' [Michael] Dukakis, on a legal issue" -- his refusal to require the Pledge of Allegiance in Massachusetts public schools.

Whether or not Mr. Bork was the first victim of the phenomenon, books have been written using his experience as the classic illustration of how to mount an effective campaign, with faxes and news releases and paid TV and radio spots, to stop a nominee.

There is some disagreement here about whether Mr. Babbitt has been the target of "Borking" in recent days. Nan Aron, head of the Alliance for Justice and prominently involved in the fight against Mr. Bork, says that the fax attack on Mr. Babbitt in recent days "doesn't yet rise to the level of 'Borking.' " She says that Republicans and conservatives are mainly trying to send cautionary signals to the White House, to try to influence Mr. Clinton's final choice.

But some elements of the pattern of past assaults that did qualify as "Borking" seem to have started for Mr. Babbitt.

Fax machines pulsate

On the very day that White House aides leaked to the press the word that the interior secretary was the top finalist for the Supreme Court vacancy, fax machines started pulsating with the first negative transmission.

It was a suggestion that he did not understand very well the law of just compensation for government seizure of private property -- an arcane subject not likely to light up the evening TV news shows, but one that just happens to be a source of significant constitutional controversy at the Supreme Court right now.

In the following days, other faxes flowed, depicting Mr. Babbitt as something of a radical on abortion and gay rights, a man with alleged ties to the mob in Las Vegas and an environmental extremist.

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