As observers of political conflict, we’re all used to being fed absurd spin by the plateful. But even by our ordinary degraded standards, the interview Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh gave to Fox News yesterday was remarkable in its disingenuousness.
This is too bad, because Kavanaugh had an opportunity to not only be at least somewhat honest and far more persuasive than he actually was but also to make a thoughtful contribution to the question we’re now confronting, about how to judge a person’s youthful character (or lack thereof) against the person they have become.
Let’s begin by acknowledging that even if the allegations made against him by Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez aren’t true, it’s pretty clear that as a young man Brett Kavanaugh was not a saint. He went to a private high school full of entitled rich boys whose leisure activities revolved around heavy drinking and sexual exploits, real or attempted. No one familiar with that suburban D.C. private school scene in the 1980s is remotely surprised by the descriptions in the book written by Kavanaugh’s friend Mark Judge (“Wasted: Tales of a GenX Drunk”) or the others from people who grew in that milieu who have shared their own stories on social media.
The New York Times has examined Kavanaugh’s yearbook. His entry seems to contain lots of coded references to drinking and partying, along with one reference to him being a “Renate Alumnius.” This is a reference to a girl from a nearby school, whose name appears 14 times in the Georgetown Prep yearbook as other boys claimed to be “alumni” of hers.
We all have ideas about what this means. It’s the kind of cruelty that it sometimes seems only teenagers are capable of. This can fairly be read as all these boys insinuating that they had sexual encounters with this girl, to boast of their own manliness and shame her as a slut. It’s not friendly, and it’s not a harmless joke. It’s horrific.
If Brett Kavanaugh were the man he claims to be, the man who has “always treated women with dignity and respect,” he’d say, “I look at that now and I feel nothing but shame. It was stupid and cruel, and all young men need to know that heaping scorn on a woman for being sexually active, or claiming she is whether it’s true or not, is absolutely unacceptable. It’s not what a real man does, it’s what a boy with a twisted view of manhood does.”
But that’s not what Kavanaugh said. He had a spokesperson release a statement saying “He admired her very much then, and he admires her to this day,” and that the reference is merely to the fact that he and the woman once attended a high school event together. That is an obvious lie. You and your buddies don’t get together to put jokey references to being an “alumnus” of the same girl in your yearbook because you admire her.
And how does Kavanaugh describe his time in high school? Here’s what he said to Fox:
I went to an all-boys Catholic high school, a Jesuit high school, where I was focused on academics and athletics, going to church every Sunday at Little Flower, working on my service projects, and friendship, friendship with my fellow classmates and friendship with girls from the local all girls Catholic schools.
And yes, there were parties. And the drinking age was 18, and yes, the seniors were legal and had beer there. And yes, people might have had too many beers on occasion and people generally in high school – I think all of us have probably done things we look back on in high school and regret or cringe a bit, but that’s not what we’re talking about.
That Kavanaugh managed to offer this description of his virtuous high school years with a straight face is truly remarkable. There may have been a beer or two that “people” drank, of course in strict adherence with the law, but Brett was probably in church or working on his “service projects” at the time! Later in the interview, he waved away another question about binge drinking in high school by saying, “I was focused on trying to be number one in my class and being captain of the varsity basketball team and doing my service projects, going to church.” What a nice boy.
Now on to college. When asked about Deborah Ramirez’s accusation, that he shoved his penis in her face during a drunken dorm room party, Kavanaugh said this:
If such a thing had happened, it would’ve been the talk of campus. The women I knew in college and the men I knew in college said that it’s inconceivable that I could’ve done such a thing.
But the New Yorker reporters spoke to multiple people who said they did hear about such an incident at the time. They didn’t directly point to him, but the idea that an upstanding fellow like Kavanaugh would never do such a thing is questionable to say the least. Kavanaugh’s freshman roommate says “although Brett was normally reserved, he was a notably heavy drinker, even by the standards of the time, and that he became belligerent and aggressive when he was very drunk.” Kavanaugh joined the DKE fraternity, which was notorious for heavy drinking and misogyny. By his own account — not someone else’s, Kavanaugh’s own — his time at Yale Law School also involved serious binge drinking.
During this process, many conservatives have asked plaintively whether people should really be held responsible for the sins they committed when they were 17. The answer is that what you did then matters, but so does what you think about it now.
And Kavanaugh doesn’t seem to have done any thinking at all. So let’s imagine he were to say something like this:
I’m not proud of everything I did when I was young; I doubt any of us are. But growing up means learning from our mistakes, in part so we can help our children grow into responsible adults. When I look back now I realize that my friends and I reveled in our own privilege — we were male, white, rich, and destined to have limitless opportunities laid before us. We drank too much. We treated the young women we knew like objects, or potential conquests, or the butt of jokes. We certainly didn’t empathize with them. If we had, we would have understood how our own behavior made them feel; how it could make them feel vulnerable, degraded, even victimized. We would have understood that those feelings can stay with a person for life, and be a source of pain and anguish, even if you were never the victim of a crime.
We can look back now and say that we can’t expect that kind of empathy from a teenager. But it’s exactly what we should expect. Even if we weren’t capable of it then, today’s teenagers can be, if we use our own failings to teach them to be better than we were. That’s what I’ve tried to do as an adult.
That wouldn’t turn the Democrats worried about the near-certainty that he’ll vote to overturn Roe v. Wade (among other things) into advocates for his nomination. But rather than making the ridiculous claim that as a young man he was brimming with all the wisdom, forbearance and deep respect for women we expect of a mature adult in 2018 — which no one can possibly believe — at least it would demonstrate that over the course of his life he has indeed learned something and become a better person than he was. But apparently that’s too much to ask.