Ghosts of the 1980s

C. Everett Koop and Robert Bork were two prominent conservatives in the 1980s. And both had interesting beards.

That’s about all they had in common.

Robert Bork was a lawless lawyer with zero integrity:

Robert Bork says President Richard Nixon promised him the next Supreme Court vacancy after Bork complied with Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in 1973.

Bork’s recollection of his role in the Saturday Night Massacre that culminated in Cox’s firing is at the center of his slim memoir, Saving Justice, that is being published posthumously by Encounter Books. Bork died in December at age 85.

Bork writes that he didn’t know if Nixon actually, though mistakenly, believed he still had the political clout to get someone confirmed to the Supreme Court or was just trying to secure Bork’s continued loyalty as his administration crumbled in the Watergate scandal.

… Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Cox over the prosecutor’s subpoena of White House tapes. Richardson resigned rather than carry out the order. The next in line, William Ruckelshaus, refused to fire Cox and was himself fired.

At TPM, a former student recounts Archibald Cox’s recollection of the Saturday Night Massacre:

I got a call from Attorney General Richardson saying, “Professor, the president wants me to fire you.” So I said, “Well, Elliott, you do what you think is right.” And so Richardson resigned rather than fire me. Then I got a call from Deputy Attorney General Ruckelshaus, who became attorney general when Richardson resigned. And he said, “Professor, the president wants me to fire you.” So I said, “Well, Bill, you do what you think is right” — and he resigned, too. Then I got a call from the next man in line at the Justice Department, Solicitor General Bork. He hadn’t been my student. …

C. Everett Koop, on the other hand, who died last week at the age of 96, is well-remembered even by those with whom he most disagreed because he was more interested in doing his job and serving the public than in political power games.

Martha Kempner has a nice remembrance of Koop at RH Reality Check, “C. Everett Koop: The Surgeon General Who Put Science Before Personal Ideology.”

Reagan, however, drafted Dr. Koop into the abortion debate toward the end of his second term when he asked the Surgeon General to write a report about the psychological effects of abortion on women.

… [Koop] interviewed experts and activists on both sides and found that even more so than in the debate over AIDS, anti-choicers skewed science to fit their point of view. After doing the research, he concluded that there: “was no unbiased, rigorous scientific research on the effects of abortion on women’s health that could serve as the basis for a Surgeon General’s report on the issue.”

Koop had integrity. Bork did not.

And Koop’s beard was way cooler, too.

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  • arcseconds

     Well, there aren’t really universally accepted definitions of ‘virtue’, ‘(morally) right’, ‘(morally) good’,  ‘moral’, and ‘ethical’ and related terms.   If they aren’t just vague and broadly synonymous with one another, it depends on the culture, the discipline, the moral theory involved, or on the person’s own idiosyncrasies.

    Just as an example, social sciences distinguish between morals and ethics on the basis that morals is what your society believes in (or upholds as norms) and ethics is what you personally believe in/ uphold as norms.  But in philosophy the terms are usually treated as being synonymous, and both usually refer to objective morality.

    ‘Virtue’ is often used for a more personal side of morality, which is in keeping with how you like to use it.  But that doesn’t mean they don’t affect other people.   Kant uses ‘virtue’  in his subtitle ‘Doctrine of Virtue’  to mean anything that’s not coercible, which includes duties to oneself (like you do), but also imperfect duties to others (like charity).   Virtue ethics tends to insist on the person and their character rather than the act, so all moral actions (whether they affect another or not) are actions of a virtuous person and instantiate that virtue.

    So it’s best not to assume too much about what someone means when they say ‘virtue’ or ‘morality’.

  • Carstonio

    The author below specifically addresses the moral differences between homosexuality and things like incest, but his argument is also the one I was trying to make here.

    It’s easy to draw lines around things we don’t like and then condemn others for falling outside the lines; it’s much harder to articulate a coherent, complete and plausible sexual ethics. It’s especially hard to do so when people keep changing the subject — which, in the end, seems to be the PIB argument’s main function.

  • arcseconds

    You were?  I’m afraid it seems pretty tangential to everything you said in this thread :]

    You were wondering how it could be that Koop could consider abortion and pre-marital sex immoral and yet not use his position to undermine either.  That’s a very different discussion to how can he or anyone else argue for a particular sexual ethic.

    It may be that he recognised that it’s hard to argue for and hence refrained from doing so, but that’s getting a bit too speculative for me without some biographical facts  — I do recognise that I’ve been plenty speculative myself, given I don’t know anything about the guy, but having a distinct idea of what one job consists and sticking to that is a pretty common idea.

    I think it’s quite tough to argue for any moral issue when the person you’re discussing has very different intuitions from you.  For that matter, science isn’t a lot easier — I’m arguing with some kind of anti-evolutionist elseweb, and I don’t seem to be making much progress…

  • Carstonio


    You were wondering how it could be that Koop could consider abortion and
    pre-marital sex immoral and yet not use his position to undermine
    either.  That’s a very different discussion to how can he or anyone else
    argue for a particular sexual ethic.

    No, I see these as related. Typically I infer from “immoral” that the action being labeled that way represents an injustice or victimization. It’s possible that Koop was using a different sexual ethic than this. Or he could have used the same ethic but believed that condemning the injustice, or treating it as a public concern, would only cause more injustice. I agree that all this is merely speculation. We’ve seen numerous pro-lifers insist that abortion merits government action, but almost always to force a decision on the woman instead of changing the circumstances that lead some women to consider abortion.