Lawyers for Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her during a high school party in suburban Washington years ago, are skirmishing with Senate Republicans over the terms under which Ford will testify about the incident.
If the hearing proceeds, senators will listen to both sides and then make statements indicating whom they believe and whether they will vote to confirm Kavanaugh to a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.
When they do, they will be speaking words crafted by mostly young speechwriters and press secretaries. Some of those young staffers — perhaps especially those called on to explain votes for Kavanaugh, despite Ford’s assertions that he drunkenly and violently pinned her down and groped her — will not believe the words they are writing.
I know I didn’t. Back in 1991, I was deputy press secretary for Sen. Alan J. Dixon (Ill.), a Democrat grappling with how to vote in the wake of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. Dixon ultimately concluded that both Thomas and Hill were “credible,” so no outside observer could determine with certainty what had happened between them — or that’s what we staffers were told to write. He stuck with his “yes” vote.
The Kavanaugh hearings have vividly brought that time of my life back to me and focused my attention on Washington’s cynicism once again.
When Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court, in July 1991, I was 24 and had recently been transferred to Washington after working my way up from intern to staff assistant in Dixon’s Chicago office. There, my responsibilities centered largely on writing letters of recommendation to the service academies — “It is an honor and privilege to recommend Johnny to West Point” — speeches to be included in small-town time capsules and the occasional request to the post office that a connected constituent’s business have a prestigious Michigan Avenue address, even if it was a half a block away.
I wasn’t a complete naif; I’d been farmed out to work on the promising congressional campaign of Mel Reynolds, a former Rhodes scholar, who lost a close race in Illinois’ 2nd District in 1990. I was briefly crushed. Then I watched Reynolds get elected two years later; not long afterward, he was convicted of multiple felonies including statutory rape and embezzlement.
Washington was different from Chicago. Everyone seemed so committed to doing good — or at least their bosses’ idea of good. I wrote floor statements on minor subjects that Dixon would delight in marking up with a red pen, pointing out my syntax errors. I became the answer to my own trivia question when I ghost-wrote the Senate invocation offered by the onetime Nation of Islam leader Wallace D. Muhammad of Chicago — the first time a Muslim had opened a Senate session.
Dixon was up for reelection in 1992, and victory seemed assured. He was known as Al the Pal for his inoffensive, middle-of-the-road views and passion for making deals. Then Thomas was nominated. Dixon announced that he was going to vote for Thomas early in the confirmation process, and the decision made few ripples. The senator was an old-school guy who believed that a president deserved to have his judges confirmed unless they proved to be incompetent or, I don’t know, secret criminals.
At first, it just seemed like another mild grit-your-teeth moment for me and my fellow Dixon staffers (who tended to be more liberal than our boss).
But then Anita Hill came forward. The nation paused to hear Hill’s thoroughly credible story of workplace harassment: the pubic-hair jokes, Thomas’s proclamation of his love for porn, his boasting of his oral sex skills.
I was grossed out and disgusted, and assumed that Dixon would denounce Thomas after Hill’s brave testimony. He didn’t. Instead, the silver-haired head of Dixon’s D.C. office told the press secretary, my boss, to craft a statement for the Senate floor in which Dixon would announce why he wasn’t changing his vote. I was enlisted to help.
For a moment, I thought of storming out, but I didn’t have the courage, just a mountain of student loan bills. Instead, I wrote some gibberish about the long and storied presumption of innocence that may or may not have been included. A few hours later, I watched Dixon give his statement on the floor. If they weren’t exactly my words, I’d had a hand in producing them:
“If Judge Thomas had been credible, and Professor Hill had not, the Senate’s choice would be equally clear. Since both were credible, however, and since it is impossible to get to the bottom of this matter, I think we have to fall back on our legal system and its presumption of innocence for those accused.”
The category error of this statement — its grievously false analogy — didn’t hit me until much later and has been on my mind since the Ford-Kavanaugh allegations emerged. The standard for a court verdict, under which some defendants go free on technicalities in order to protect the rights of the many, isn’t the standard that should be applied to a lifelong appointment to the highest court in the land. Thomas was not facing jail time: His punishment would have been a return to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The presence of significant doubt about his story would merely prevent him from serving on the Supreme Court.
Dixon voted for Thomas, who slipped through the Senate with the closest confirmation vote in the 20th century: 52 to 48. Afterward, a few of us adjourned to a Capitol Hill bar to drink our frustration away. The senator’s chief of staff was there and sent over a round of drinks, knowing we were miserable. It didn’t help. I went home and threw up.
The likely thinking behind Dixon’s vote was that it inoculated him from a GOP challenger in a state where, at the time, Democrats and Republicans were closely balanced. (Years later, Dixon said his vote was one of principle, but I have my doubts.)
The supposedly practical calculation turned out to be exactly wrong. I moved back to Chicago to work on his 1992 campaign and watched as Carol Moseley Braun, an underfunded African American candidate, ran an insurgent crusade spurred by Dixon’s vote for Thomas. The Democratic primary contest was a three-way race; the third candidate was a rich white lawyer. There were rumors that Dixon’s campaign so condescended to Braun that it raised money to keep her in the race and split the anti-Dixon vote. (I was not enough of a player to know if this was true.) It backfired spectacularly. Braun defeated Dixon and was elected to the Senate, as were California’s Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and Washington’s Patty Murray — part of a wave that led to 1992 being dubbed the “year of the woman.”
I remember not being saddened by Dixon’s defeat — and realizing I needed to get out of politics.
I also remember a meeting with Dixon and his chief of staff the previous November. I’d been volunteering on the weekends for the special-election Senate campaign of Harris Wofford, a friend of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. who ran an inspirational race based on providing universal health care. After Wofford’s stunning victory, Dixon’s brain trust asked me what we could learn from that campaign. I wanted to say, “Believe in something.” But I didn’t. I mumbled something generic about how we needed to make a floor statement on health care and headed home.
I can’t urge a young Senate aide to quit his dream job over the Kavanaugh allegations. I didn’t — at least not right away. But if you stay and write words you don’t believe in, it will haunt you.
For how long? I’m at 26 years and still counting.
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