Reagan papers give look at troubled court choices

Sunday, July 21, 2002


By Laura Wides ~ The Associated Press

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. -- The Reagan administration, struggling to save the doomed Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork, considered calling in movie star Charlton Heston to give him a boost, newly released presidential papers show.

The strategy of using Heston, who played Moses in "The Ten Commandments," was spelled out in a 1987 memo titled "The Borker" and released Friday. It was written by White House staffer Jeffrey Lord, who suggested there needed to be more television ads aggressively promoting Bork and taking his critics to task.

"Cut one spot with a great voice (e.g. Charlton Heston). Theme: Robert Bork has been smeared. The victim of vicious special interest groups," Lord wrote.

The memo and others were among 150 pages of Reagan papers released Friday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. An additional 40 pages were released by the Bush Presidential Library. Both sets dealt with presidential appointments.

The Reagan papers were among the last of some 68,000 pages of records that originally were to be released 12 years after Reagan left the White House in 1989.

After Bork was rejected by the Senate, his critics having branded him a conservative zealot, another White House staffer complained in a memo that a person's ideology would forever be a benchmark for judging judicial nominees.

It is "entirely unrealistic to expect that a nominee's ideology ... can escape scrutiny by the Senate," Dinesh D'souza wrote in a memo titled "Life After Bork." D'souza added that the new standard would be applied to both liberals and conservatives.

Other memos show that White House officials thought they would have a much easier time getting Reagan's next Supreme Court nominee, constitutional scholar Douglas Ginsberg, confirmed, noting he had a reputation for fairness and was not viewed as extremist.

Ginsberg withdrew his nomination nine days after it was submitted, however, after it was reported he had smoked marijuana while on the Harvard law faculty.

Still another document shows that the White House believed, accurately, that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was well respected in Congress and would have no problem being confirmed as head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Thomas' later nomination to the Supreme Court by President George Bush was nearly upended by law professor Anita Hill's allegations he had sexually harassed her.

Documents from former President Bush's library released Friday shed more light on discussions over the next NASA chief after the Challenger explosion, when Bush was vice president.

Reagan's chief of staff Don Regan informed his counterpart in Bush's office, Craig L. Fuller, in early 1986 that outgoing NASA head Jim Beggs would not resign if the agency's deputy head, William Graham, were to replace him.

"Beggs won't resign until he knows who successor is," Regan wrote in an undated handwritten note. "He will not resign if it's Graham."

Beggs was leaving because of indictments the previous December related to his tenure as executive vice president of defense contractor General Dynamics Corp., which had been charged with defrauding the government. Prosecutors withdrew charges against Beggs in 1987, but by then former NASA chief James C. Fletcher had signed on for a second tour of duty.

The discussions only vaguely touched on Challenger, the space shuttle which exploded 73 seconds after liftoff just days before on Jan. 28, killing all seven astronauts on board. After Beggs' departure, Reagan moved quickly to stabilize the agency, which was under intense scrutiny.

President Bush blocked the release of Reagan's papers last year, then issued an executive order in November giving former presidents, vice presidents and the incumbent president veto power over release of their papers.

After the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen and a coalition of historians and journalists sued, the White House approved release of the Reagan papers.

Attorney Scott Nelson of Public Citizen welcomed the papers' release Friday, but said he would proceed with the lawsuit, noting Bush's executive order still allows for blocking the future release of presidential papers from every administration after Reagan's.

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