THE Senate floor debate on Robert Bork's confirmation to the Supreme Court should be sharply limited so the vote can be taken quickly. If Mr. Bork is certain to be rejected, as vote counts purportedly show, then why drag out the spectacle of defeat? Put forth the best debaters to make the cases pro and con, and settle the matter. Congress itself will look no better for mounting a prolonged and acrimonious dispute. The Bork affair only illustrates the poor state of relations in Washington between White House and Congress. The sober purpose of congressional ``advice and consent'' has been trivialized by partisanship and mistaken motives. This becomes worse, given the urgent demand for leadership today in Washington.
Bork in some ways is among the most qualified candidates to be nominated for the Supreme Court. In his testimony he gave assurances that he would hold to accepted standards of decision. He would be ``disgraced by history'' if he went back on his word, he said.
Evidently this was not enough. Blacks, women, minorities, simply did not trust that Bork would stand up for their rights. Crucial Northern Republicans and even Southern conservative Democrats sensed this and opposed him. The critical point is that most Americans believe they have an inherent right of privacy guaranteed by the Constitution, while Bork said he could not find it there or derive such a right from the Constitution.
This concept of privacy underlies the sense of individual freedom, of personal integrity, that makes the United States unique. An affirmation like Luther's ``Here I stand'' implies that there is a place to stand, an inviolability of one's thought and body and being, that makes the notion of slavery - tolerated by the Founding Fathers - loathsome.
The President may have felt committed to ideologically stacking the court with the Bork appointment. He may have wanted to assert executive authority. He faces, however, a defeat that neither revives his declining political clout nor does justice to Mr. Bork, who insisted on a Senate vote after having given so fully of his own testimony.
If Bork is rejected, the President should think more of the court's place in history than of leaving some ideologigal legacy of his own. In this the Senate can join him.