By Michael Dolan

  Never mind his writings on Roe vs. Wade. The inner workings of Robert Bork’s mind are revealed by the videos he rents.


By now we all know what Robert Bork looks like and what he sounds like when he’s irritated with some snoopy legislator. We know how much he pulls in for telling clients what they want to hear, and how much he wishes he’d logged a few hours volunteering at the Poor Clares so he’d have some social service chops on his C.V. to satisfy his inquisitors on the Judiciary Committee.

Longtime fans, of course, remember Bork standing over the corpses with a gat in his paw after the Saturday Night Massacre. That paragon of probity, Copycat Biden, says he’s a real pooh-pooh head. Jerry Ford considers him brilliant – an endorsement that conjures horrific visions of the inner workings of the Bork brain. Norman Lear and his people are in our faces day and night, by mail and by radio ad, suggesting that if Bork makes the team, the season’s over for democracy.

By his own lights, Robert Bork is neither a liberal nor a conservative, just a roly-poly fellow with a see-through beard who’d really like to land one of those jobs where you knock down $80K per, summers off, they can’t fire you, and there’s no heavy lifting.

But does anyone really know Robert Bork? I mean, really? Beyond the stacks of praise and reams of rebuttal, after all the history and hysteria, do we have any genuine sense of this man who has been put up for membership in the most exclusive club in the land?

In a word: naaaaah.

The only way to figure out what someone is like is to examine what that someone likes – take a hard look at the tools of leisure he uses to chip away life’s rough edges. Anyone who’s ever had to find a roommate in a hurry or tried to check out a date while she’s getting her coat knows that 90 seconds spent flipping through a prospect’s record collection reveals volumes more than all the resumes and references on the planet. By their album sleeves ye shall know them, I always say.

Now, I realize this is an unorthodox method of discovery and analysis. And I’m not suggesting somebody from the General Accounting Office should charge over to the good judge’s home and demand to eyeball his LPs. Between advising corporate America on antitrust matters and dodging brickbats at Senate hearings, Judge Bork is a busy guy. Besides, he’s got a big iron fence around his house that suggests he hasn’t the time or the inclination to let me or you riffle through his records to see which one has more mileage: his copy of von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic on Beethoven’s Ninth or his gatefold edition of Lou Reed’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal. However, we are living in the ‘80s, and there are other, more accessible yardsticks of personal taste.

Rental videotapes, for example.

What if you were a noseyparker Washington reporter and a little bird offered to slip you a copy of the complete list of VHS tapes rented from a D.C. video store by a prominent citizen being considered for a gig doing vocals with the Supremes?

Would you scream “First Amendment! Olly olly oxen free!” and start doing your newshawk dance, succumbing utterly to the febrile desire for sensationalistic scab-pulling? Or would you take the high road and decline to assay an arbitrary and capricious opinion derived from such circumstantial evidence?

Only the most depraved avatar of ink-stained wretchdom would leap at such an opportunity, mais non? Only a close cousin of the curbside snoops who caught Hart cooking with Rice would subject an eminent jurist to an ad hominem analysis based on inference, wouldn’t he? Only an unprincipled hack with nothing better to do than flay the reputation of the rich and famous would salivate at the chance to scan Robert Bork’s video rental list and write about it, right?

Yeah, I feel the same way. It’s dirty work, but someone’s got to do it.

Not that the assignment wasn’t fraught with anxiety. When I was driving to meet my source, I felt twinges of trepidation straight out of Bob Woodward’s memory banks. What if Judge Bork turned out to be a big fan of Desiree Cousteau or Seka? Good God, what if he had a yen for the early works of Kenneth Anger, or the latest Jack Wrangler? Suppose he liked to snuggle up all weekend with the remote control and fast-forward to the good parts of slasher upon slasher? Or maybe, despite his professed love of free-market capitalism, he rented nothing but the ponderous agitprop of Sergei Eisenstein or Leni Riefenstahl? When the list landed in them, I felt as if I held history in my hot little hands, and wondered whether I dared dissect it.

Then I remembered A.J. Weberman.

Weberman, founder of the school of intellectual discourse known as “garbageology,” was a Greenwich Village loon who spent years stealing Bob Dylan’s trash and subjecting it to the sort of deep-focus scrutiny usually reserved for such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. If Weberman could deconstruct Bob Dylan’s detritus, I finally decided, Dolan could deconstruct Bob Bork’s, even if the trash was cultural and not literal.

The garbageologist’s life may be a sleazy one, but it’s not an easy one. Weberman suffered for his scholarship; Dylan once caught him rooting through the used Pampers and kicked his inquiring butt. Invading Judge Bork’s privacy could get me into trouble if we ever met face-to-face. But then, I’ve seen the man move – he might be in line to vote for reinstating the death penalty, but he’s way too slow to pull a Refrigerator Perry on me. And anyway, the judge indicated during his confirmation hearings that he’s not necessarily a rabid fan of the notion of a constitutional guarantee of privacy.

So let’s get Borkological. Let’s Bork out. Let’s Bork again like we did last summer.

A caveat for all you emptors: The tapes in question were rented via an account established in Mrs. Bork’s name. Robert Bork appears on the records only in the supporting role of “husband” under the category of “Other Users.” There’s no way to determine which films he selected and which choices were his wife’s, but hey, he’s the man of the castle. For debate’s sake, let’s hold him responsible.

My first conclusion is that, if anything, Robert Bork ought to be nominated for Supreme Couch Potato. He’s a life member of the video club, and he takes that status seriously: I count 146 rentals, including repeats – in less than two years. That’s sofa reptile in my book. We’re talking Komodo dragon on the Barcalounger, folks. Bork’s fondness for the small screen came up in last Saturday’s hearings, which he disliked because attending would keep him from watching Boston College play football. After much back and forth with the Judiciary Committee, Bork grudgingly agreed to tape the game and come to the hearings, although I’m sure he’d rather have done the opposite.

Anyway: the Bork tapes. As I expected, they offer a few clues as to the man’s personality, and his outlook. There are some surprises; there are entries that do not surprise at all. Some films are remarkable for their absence.

First off, despite what all you pervs were hoping, there’s not an X in the bunch, and hardly an R. In fact, unless he does business by mail, Judge Bork seems to be a PG-to-G sort of fellow, leading one to wonder whether, if he concurs with former Justice Stewart on pornography (“I know it when I see it.”), how he knows when he does see it.

There aren’t any Elvis or Marilyn Monroe movies, and only one John Wayne (Stagecoach, which did come home twice). No Cheech and Chong. No Bruce Lee. Neither Woody Allen nor the Wood Man’s idol Ingmar Bergman. None of the Cahiers du Cinema crowd – Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer. Cotton Club made it, but no Godfadduh, and no Apocalypse Now. No Brando. No Clint Eastwood. No Stallone. No DeNiro. No Eddie Murphy. And – I hope I’m not going to upset any applecarts here – not a single sample of Ronald Reagan’s deathless oeuvre rolled through the Bork VCR via the vidstore.

Well, what does the man watch, already?

What he watches are lots of mysteries, particularly of the “caper” variety – galvanizing but not gory, longer on humor than on hackle-raising – and a fair amount of what I suppose would be termed action/adventure yarns. His favorite director: Alfred Hitchcock (at 12 rentals – including reruns – the fat man is way out in front). Bork’s fave films (judging by a tie at three rerents apiece): an odd triple feature of Hitch’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Man With the Golden Gun (Roger Moore’s second turn as James Bond), and Bill Forsyth’s whimsical comedy Comfort and Joy, the story of a Glasgow DJ who mediates a turf war between rival gangs of Italian ice cream vendors.

Although half his rentals are distinctly American films (they range from My Little Chickadee and A Day at the Races through On the Town and The Wild Bunch to The Right Stuff and Ruthless People), Judge Bork clearly has a bad jones for things British.

His favorite actors are Cary Grant (12 entries, thanks mainly to reruns of North by Northwest, Charade, and The Philadelphia Story), Roger Moore (seven, courtesy of Bond and several deservedly lesser-known outings), Alec Guinness (six, all from the ‘50s), and Peter Sellers (four, mainly Pink Panthers). The Borks have rented five Bond films, plus the left-field Anglophile choice of the Who concert film The Kids Are Alright (think of Big Bob windmilling around the rec room with his Pete Townshend imitation).

Combine this with his predilection for British costume dramas such as The Private Life of Henry the Eighth and the comedies of Ronald Neame and Charles Crichton, and we might just have the closet royalist that Bork’s critics are howling about. It’s too bad the Apex and MacArthur theaters aren’t still around doing their Brit-only series; Judge Bork could hear cases in the lobby, next to the popcorn machine.

Besides the Anglophilia, there’s a curious pattern to the titles and orientation of the films that Bork rents. The vast majority are vehicles for male stars. Lots of “Man” entries: The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Man With the Golden Gun, The Man in the White Suit, A Man for All Seasons, Repo Man, The Man on the Eiffel Tower (an obscure 1949 policier notable mainly for having been Burgess Meredith’s first venture into directing). All Bork needs for a movie minyan is The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Man Who Skied Down Everest, and maybe The Man Who Would Be King.

Bork’s taste in actresses isn’t as clearly defined, although there are a few repeaters: (Meryl Streep (Out of Africa, Plenty), Grace Kelly (courtesy of her appearances in a spate of Hitchcock’s films), Better Midler (Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Ruthless People), and Molly Ringwald (Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles). In light of guest appearances by Mae West (My Little Chickadee) and Madonna (Desperately Seeking Susan), I’d have to say Judge Bork likes his women American, self-possessed, and confident, and capable of private passion, however reserved they may be in public.

The repeat entries reveal a catholicity of taste: The Shining (“Heeeeeeere’s Bobby!”), Sleuth (American Joseph Mankiewicz directing echt limeys Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine in – what else? – a whodunit), His Girl Friday (Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in a genderbent remake of The Front Page), Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni’s take on Swinging London, featuring Vanessa Redgrave fleetingly topless – this is about the raciest item on the list), Charade (Britisher Stanley Donen directs Audrey Hepburn, Walter Matthau, and, of course, Cary Grant), Sea Wolves (a U.K.-made WWII spy show with Roger Moore, David Niven, Trevor Howard, and – struggling to keep straight his face and his accent – Gregory Peck), To Catch a Thief (Hitchcock, Grace Kelly, and the ubiquitous Grant), The Philadelphia Story (Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart, and Cary Grant pretending he’s an American), Kind Hearts and Coronets (Guinness again, this time playing eight different dead people), The Shooting Party (more Brits).

So inquiring minds might be forgiven for concluding that Bork is a hopeless Anglophile, drawn irresistibly to the snappy patter, stiff upper lips, and impeccable manners of mainstream British cinema. The ‘30s vintage Brit films he rents are thrillers and historical epics; those from the ‘50s, except for the bitter labor satire I’m All Right Jack, are middle-class comedies. He skips the grainy, gritty neorealism that marked ‘60s British filmmaking and shows a decided preference for the light touch of Bill Forsyth (besides rolling Comfort and Joy three times, he’s also brought home Forsyth’s equally offbeat Local Hero a couple of times).

True, Bork has dipped into some classic work by American directors John Ford (Stagecoach), Orson Welles (Citizen Kane and The Lady From Shanghai), Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard; One, Two, Three) and Ernest Lubitsch (To Be or Not to Be; Ninotchka), Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday; The Big Sleep), Robert Rossen (All the King’s Men), and W.S. Van Dyke (the Thin Man series). He’s also done some Fellini (8 1/2), some de Sica (After the Fox), and some Beineix (Diva), but mainly he likes to stay in the middle of the motorway, belt and braces securely fastened to the existing order of things.

Like a lot of people, Bork seems to favor the past – whether in the films of his younger days (The Roaring Twenties, Gay Divorcee, Swing Time, Topper) – or in new stories set way back when in some rose-colored when (Silverado, Racing With the Moon, The Big Chill, Young Winston, My Favorite Year, Out of Africa). When he does rent films set in the present, he usually picks MOR stuff – Terms of Endearment, for example. However, he’s rented teenaramas Footloose and Risky Business, as well as Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Plenty, An American Werewolf in London, Little Drummer Girl, and Return of the Secaucus 7, so you hardly could accuse him of being narrow in his viewing habits – although, in re his much discussed attitude toward blacks, the only related entries are The Gods Must Be Crazy and A Soldier’s Story. Not exactly a balanced viewing experience.

If I were to draw a psychological profile of Bork the viewer, I’d say he thinks of himself as a smooth operator who sticks to the beaten track but also has a secret wild life. He identifies with risk-takers and outsiders – but only the dapper sort who can doff their commando suits, slip into evening wear, and waltz with the duchess after stealing her jewels. Not for Bob Bork the scruff, the roughneck, the wildcatter with no appreciation for the rules of the game.

But wait. There are a couple of more rentals here that pique the curiosity. Before I got the list I wondered which Washington-oriented films would appear on it. Washington Merry-Go-Round? No. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Nope. Advise and Consent…Seven Days in May…All the President’s Men…The Imagemaker? No, no, no, no.

The two Washington-based items on the Bork list are the moronic Goldie Hawn comedy Protocol and (may I have the envelope, please?) First Monday in October.

Yes – First Monday in October, the story of how crustily conservative new Supreme Court Justice Jill Clayburgh and vastly more liberal colleague Walter Matthau negotiate their political and romantic differences. On Saturday, April 25, the Borks took out three films: First Monday, Sakharov (a drama about the Soviet dissenter), and U.K. kid comedy Experience Preferred. All three were back at the store the next day. One can only wonder to what degree the evening’s viewing amounted to a training session.

Lastly, there is the law. Myself, I like to watch films about journalism, if only to gripe about their inaccuracies, but I know lawyers who can’t stand to watch or read or listen to stuff about their profession. I also know lawyers whose leisure time amounts to little else. Where did Judge Bork fit on that spectrum? Would he favor stuff like 12 Angry Men and To Kill a Mockingbird and Inherit the Wind and Kramer vs. Kramer and …And Justice for All and Paper Chase and The Verdict?

It took me a while, but I got my answer. Besides First Monday – which as about as much to do with the law as Protocol has to do with foreign relations – there was only one truly court-related tape on the list.

The Star Chamber.

Named for the Elizabethan-era secret courts of Bork’s beloved England, in which a plaintiff could be arraigned, charged, tried, and convicted without even being present, this 1983 film features Michael Douglas as an up-and-coming American judge who wearies of the namby-pamby legal system that lets killers and rapists go free on technicalities. To remedy the situation, the jurist joins a secret society of colleagues who dish out vigilante justice.

Sort of gives one pause, doesn’t it? I’d really like to know what Judge Bork thought – not so much of the movie, but of the idea. Wouldn’t you?

And now, if someone would kick in with a list of the tapes rented by Sam Donaldson and perhaps Ted Kennedy. We know Joe Biden’s got a copy of Neil Kinnock’s Greatest Hit, but what else does he watch…and what about Pat Buchanan…Bob Dole…Mario Cuomo...George F. Will…Gee, this could be a life’s work…


(Originally published in the Sept. 25-October 1, 1987, Washington City Paper; copyright Michael Dolan; all rights reserved)


HOME beginning of article previous page next page