“Nothing personal”: the trail from The Devil’s Disciple to Ted Kennedy

George Bernard Shaw

Bernard Shaw

Ever wonder where “nothing personal, just business” came from? You probably figured it started with Mario Puzo and The Godfather. But as we were seeing Bernard Shaw’s 1897 play The Devil’s Disciple at the Shaw Festival a week ago (see Emsworth’s review of this fine show at this post), we realized that it goes farther back.

In the final act, Dick Dudgeon has been arrested by British soldiers, who mean to hang him as a rebel sympathizer. The hour of his execution has been set; all that remains is for him to be tried. Dick, full of bravado, meets General Burgoyne, who comes on the scene for the trial:

BURGOYNE (with extreme suavity). I believe I am Gentlemanly Johnny, sir, at your service. My more intimate friends call me General Burgoyne. (Richard bows with perfect politeness.) You will understand, sir, I hope, since you seem to be a gentleman and a man of some spirit in spite of your calling, that if we should have the misfortune to hang you, we shall do so as a mere matter of political necessity and military duty, without any personal ill-feeling.

RICHARD. Oh, quite so. That makes all the difference in the world, of course.

(Shaw’s stage directions): They all smile in spite of themselves: and some of the younger officers burst out laughing.

The only woman present is Judith Anderson, half in love with Dick. She is not amused.

JUDITH (her dread and horror deepening at every one of these jests and compliments). How CAN you?

Abe Vigoda as Tessio

Abe Vigoda as Tessio in The Godfather

Fast-forward to 1972! The Godfather hits the big screen. Michael Corleone deduces that long-time Corleone family henchman Tessio has sold the family out to its rivals. As Tessio is escorted to what he knows will be his own execution, he asks Tom Hagen, the family’s lawyer, to tell Michael that he always liked him and that his betrayal was “nothing personal — just business.”

That was an attitude Tessio learned from the Corleones themselves. When Michael finds it necessary to order the execution of his own sister’s husband, Carlo, he tells him, “Nothing personal, Carlo. This is just business.” When Michael urges that the Corleones should murder a policeman, he knows how to reassure his doubtful brother: “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”

Through it all, the Corleone women — Michael’s sister Connie and his wife Kay — are not amused.

Robert Bork

Judge Robert Bork

Life imitates art! In July 1987, President Ronald Reagan nominates Judge Robert Bork to the United States Supreme Court. Bork is a one of the nation’s foremost legal scholars, a former Solicitor General, a federal appeals court judge, a man of impeccable personal character, and one of the best-qualified Supreme Court nominees in United States history.

But the first thing most Americans hear about Bork was from Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who slanders Bork in a front-page-headline speech:

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, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government . . . . No justice would be better than this injustice.

Ted Kennedy

Senator Edward M. Kennedy

It was egregiously untrue. But its impact on Robert Bork’s nomination was fatal. When Judge Bork gamely paid Senator Kennedy a courtesy call early in the confirmation process, the senator assured the nominee that the things he’d said about him were “nothing personal.”

And in the course of the confirmation hearings, Senator Kennedy bumped into the judge’s wife in a hallway on Capitol Hill. According to Ethan Bronn’s book Battle for Justice, the senator said to her, “Mrs. Bork, you must be so tired.  It’s a very difficult time, I know.  I hope you understand it’s nothing personal.”   

Mary Ellen Bork was not amused.