There before me in September 1987 was Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, nervously sitting for a rare prehearing press interview. 

Bork chomped furiously on nicotine gum, hoping he could kick his cigarette habit before his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing gaveled into session four days hence, for what was already shaping up as a major confrontation over Bork’s past and present views.

“These are not the best of times” to quit smoking, Bork sighed. No question about that.

Though not a stranger to media and political attention Bork, who died on Wednesday, seemed oddly unprepared for what would hit him. Democratic senators and liberal groups, one of which had raised $2 million for a major public campaign to oppose him, were doing all they could to defeat him.

Bork had participated in videotaped practice sessions, and White House handlers told me he would do well, comparing him to Iran-contra star witness Oliver North. But there was also a streak of “let Bork be Bork” sentiment, with some of his supporters thinking that if only he could explain himself in his clever, droll manner of speaking and his brilliant mind, he would do okay. After all, just months earlier, his intellectual match, Antonin Scalia, had won confirmation without dissent.

One sign that it might not work out so well for Bork came when I asked him if he had changed legal positions over the years – refuting his image as an inflexible ideologue. His answer came by rote, awkwardly delivered, and did not cite the kind of changes that would have made sense to a broad audience, such as readers of USA TODAY, where I worked at the time.

As the interview went on, Bork seemed to clam up more and more. He spoke expansively about his University of Chicago days, but refused to discuss his religion except to that that he was raised as a “generic Protestant.” Further details were “more profound than I am able to discuss” with the press, he added.

Even though justices become almost completely invisible after they are confirmed, they still have to pass a sort of likability test and present a calm style of speaking that reassures the Senate and the public that they will not do scary things. Instead, Bork was occasionally testy during the televised hearing, and he should have come up with a better reason for becoming a justice than looking forward to an “intellectual feast.” Sporadically, he also answered questions about specific issues in more detail than most nominees since. Even his forbidding beard cost him points, though that can’t be a valid reason to vote against a nominee.

By the end of my time interviewing Bork, I felt somewhat sorry for him. My final question – reporters always ask this last – was, “Why are you talking to me and other reporters?” He paused and said, “I really don’t know. They told me I should put myself out there.”

Tony Mauro, who has covered the U.S. Supreme Court for three decades, can be contacted at tmauro@alm.com.