The first question the Senate Judiciary Committee ought to ask Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearings next week should go like this: Are you embarrassed and chagrined at the way you and others in the office of the independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr bullied and terrified Lewinsky? Are you ashamed that you had a role in coercing her into revealing the lurid details of her sexual moments with Clinton — and then those details were published for public consumption and titillation in the shockingly lewd and virtually pornographic Starr Report?
In a brutal Aug. 15, 1998, memo to Starr, Kavanaugh recommended that no mercy be shown Clinton when he went before a grand jury. In the memo, Kavanaugh blamed Clinton for turning Lewinsky’s life “into a shambles.” He had it backward: Actually, it was Starr and his men who invaded Lewinsky’s private life and revealed the most intimate minutiae of what was her — and not just Clinton’s — sexual affair. “Shambles” is a mild description of what they made of her life.
The memo is startling for both its anger and its inescapable suggestion that Kavanaugh wanted to get Clinton not just for perjury about an affair, but for the affair itself. This so disgusted Kavanaugh that he suggested Clinton be asked the most clinical questions regarding the sex he had with Lewinsky. “The idea of going easy on him at the questioning is thus abhorrent to me,” Kavanaugh wrote.
Actually, it was Kavanaugh’s proposed questions that were abhorrent. Beyond that, however, he and the other prosecutors were engaged in an elaborate attempt to persecute a political foe. Yes, the president had lied under oath. But as many Americans recognized at the time, the lie involved extramarital sex, which was neither a high crime nor a misdemeanor, but a banality. The lie was wrong, and made all the more wrong because it was made under oath by the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. Still, national security was hardly at stake.
Lewinsky, too, was ensnared in the attempted political coup. She had submitted a false affidavit about her affair with the president. That was her one and only crime, and for that, FBI agents and a special prosecutor lured her to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Pentagon City, escorted her to an upstairs room, and told her that if she did not help the special prosecutor incriminate Clinton, she would be indicted for perjury, witness tampering, obstruction of justice and other charges.
Lewinsky was both prescient and premature. Worse was yet to come.
Kavanaugh and his buddies had in effect conducted a raid on her personal life, eventually having the Government Publishing Office spill it all out in the lurid Starr Report. A riveted nation was told all about their oral sex, telephone sex and even stogie sex. The report, and the impeachment that followed, was the culmination of a nearly successful attempt by right-wing night riders to make Clinton swing. An investigation that started out looking into a trivial real estate deal called Whitewater veered into an obsessive attempt to assassinate the president of the United States by mortification. Kavanaugh put his shoulder to that wheel.
Kavanaugh is 20 years older now, and, just possibly, wiser. According to a former member of the Starr team, Kavanaugh immediately regretted the tone of the memo. He also disliked that Congress released the sexually explicit details to the public. Time is a great teacher. Hugo Black, a long-serving and much-honored Supreme Court justice, once belonged to the Ku Klux Klan as an Alabama politician. On the court, though, he joined its liberal wing. People can change. Regret stalks us all.
But Kavanaugh’s memo evinces not a political view or political expediency but the furious intolerance of an inquisitor. His zeal to topple a president by revealing and criminalizing his deeply humiliating — and, yes, abhorrent — personal life is not easily forgivable and not at all forgettable. He and his colleagues went after Clinton’s lover as if she were an atomic spy. In the process, they virtually arrested a young woman on the solemn charge of being a young woman. Kavanaugh did this. He has to account for it.