Senator Joe Biden (yea, that Joe Biden) was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the confirmation hearings for both Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas.
Prior to his nomination, Bork was best known for his role in the "Saturday Night Massacre": Nixon ordered AG Richardson to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox who was investigating Watergate. Richardson refused and resigned immediately. Nixon next ordered the deputy AG to fire Cox, and HE refused and resigned immediately. Nixon, working down the chain, then ordered the #3 man at the DOJ to fire Cox, and Cox was indeed terminated. All this happened in one Saturday evening.
The #3 man was Bork.
The Democrats were already preparing to oppose any Reagan SCOTUS nominee. Forty-five minutes after Bork's nomination, Ted Kennedy condemned Bork on national TV:
"Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, and schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens."Histrionics at that level were very uncommon at the time; today it is TV as usual. Further, a report was prepared for Biden (called the "Biden Report") which was used to fan the histrionics. Today, such a report is called "opposition research."
During the confirmation hearing, Bork's video rental history was leaked to reporters — he didn't rent porn, but he did not rewind before returning. There is some irony in this leak, since Bork didn't have a stellar record regarding privacy protections. Legislation protecting video rental records was later passed as a result.
Most of the furor during the confirmation hearing was generated by women's rights groups and pro-choice groups, fanned by Kennedy's speech. And there was that Biden Report.
Bork's confirmation hearing is the first modern example of the confirmation process being driven not by careful deliberation but by public campaigns and character assassinations. This new process was described with a new verb: "borking". That verb was later replaced by "swiftboating".
The Senate voted against Bork's confirmation. Afterwards, Bork said that the Biden Report "so thoroughly misrepresented a plain record that it easily qualifies as world class in the category of scurrility." About Ted Kennedy's speech excoriating him, Bork said that "there was not a line in that speech that was accurate." A reporter later said that while that may be true, Kennedy's speech "worked".
The SCOTUS vacancy would instead be filled by Anthony Kennedy.
The level of partisan vitriol at Bork's confirmation was high, but the confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas would turn that level up to 11. In fact, the opposition to Bork's confirmation was the Democrats' training for the circus that would be Thomas' confirmation.
Racism was on display throughout Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearing.
The Dems brought out someone named Anita Hill to level sexual harassment claims against him. They played minority groups (blacks vs women) against each other. They also asserted that Thomas rented porn videos and watched them in his chambers. Joe Biden claimed Thomas talked about Long Dong Silver with Hill. Rightfully outraged, Thomas made it clear that Biden's innuendos were playing off the stereotypes that black men are sex-crazed and hung:
"This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It's a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree."
Afterwards, one reporter said: "I don't care if Clarence Thomas had an inflatable doll on his sofa and a framed autograph from Long Dong Silver on the wall. Just because a man has an immature interest in dirty stuff doesn't mean he harassed anyone."
Thomas didn't win the confirmation so much as he survived the confirmation process.
The Democrats used the same playbook on Bork as on Thomas: treat innuendo as fact; pretend to be shocked, shocked!, at the supposed outrages against decency; stipulate that Western Civilization would fall; and if all that fails, find someone willing to accuse the candidate of sexual harassment — and that accuser will disappear and soon be forgotten afterwards. The Democrats did that to Roy Moore. They are doing it with the #MeToo movement. They're trying to do it against a former OSU wrestling coach. They are doing it with President Trump. And they will do it on Brett Kavanaugh, Trump's new SCOTUS nominee.
The difference is that four years passed between Bork's and Thomas' confirmation hearings. Now, this level of manufactured outrage is a daily occurrence. Eventually people will figure out that the sky is indeed not falling.