Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly, two New York Times reporters, dig into the messy middle in “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh,” a thoroughly reported look at how those hectic, divisive autumn weeks came to pass.
There is plenty in their reporting that is alternately heartbreaking and rage-inducing. Christine Blasey Ford, who seemingly came out of nowhere to testify about an incident when, she said, Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her during their teenage years, is reconstructed as neither feminist hero nor vengeful villain; she is, instead, a human woman who had previously recounted her painful story to a handful of intimates, who tried to remain anonymous until it became impossible, and who struggled with whether and how to come forward. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, broadly portrayed at the time as an inept manager of Ford’s story, is seen in hindsight as a concerned public servant to two competing masters: her desire to ensure that the accusations were investigated, and Ford’s plea for anonymity.
But most striking is Deborah Ramirez, a classmate of Kavanaugh’s at Yale whose story — she said he pulled out his penis and put it in her face at a party — was reported on but rapidly sidelined during the hasty confirmation process. Pogrebin and Kelly do what the FBI didn’t bother to do: They talk to a wide variety of Kavanaugh’s and Ramirez’s Yale contemporaries and find multiple people who corroborate Ramirez’s account.
This new reporting pushed the Kavanaugh story back into the headlines and set off new debates over what should happen next. Several Democratic presidential candidates say he should be impeached; Republicans have done away with any pretense of respect for the women who came forward, casting them as liars and the reporters who found sources to corroborate their stories as partisans.
The actual story Pogrebin and Kelly tell in their book is more complicated than the one currently being told about it. They scrupulously avoid partisanship, finding several people who say Kavanaugh was a stand-up guy, a frat boy for sure, but a virgin who treated women with respect. Many of Kavanaugh’s friends see a politically motivated takedown, not a search for the truth. And certainly his wife, who at one point had to flee their home because of death threats, is collateral damage in a battle she never chose to fight.
But today, Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court and goes home every night to his family, while Ford’s life has never quite returned to what it was.
Like many Americans, I watched the Kavanaugh hearings, if on a few hours’ delay — that autumn, I was reporting in Colombia, working on a story about abortion access for rape survivors. I interviewed women who had been raped in their country’s civil war, who decided on that particular day that yes, they were willing to sit down with a strange reporter from a foreign country and talk about the worst day (or for many of them, days) of their lives. After the war ended and the peace process began, many of the women, like many others in Colombia, reported what they had lost and sought compensation: land, children, husbands, brothers, sisters. Very few of the women I talked to, though, reported being raped. It was a big thing, the shame. And the rape, they convinced themselves — they were told, explicitly or implicitly — was a small thing. Who were you to complain when you survived it? When so many people lost things that were real and tangible — the land of one’s ancestors, the warm body of a loved one — isn’t it outrageous to suggest that in rape, something just as valuable was lost as well?
It was on one of those days — I can’t remember exactly which, but I think it was the same day one of the women I interviewed took off her shirt so that Nicki, the photographer I work with, could capture an image of the bullet hole that scarred the skin near her breast (there were a lot of days, and a lot of scars, and a lot of women) — that Nicki and I went back to our hotel room and pulled up C-SPAN on YouTube and watched Ford and Kavanaugh testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The story Ford told was different from the ones we had spent our days listening to. And yet so many of the themes were excruciatingly, exhaustingly similar: the women who were told to keep quiet and carried the weight of long-held secrets; the way words that had been choked down for years finally turned fear and shame into something like relief; the disparagement and sometimes rage from those who found their stories inconvenient. Watching Ford, I felt the same awe and gratitude I did for the women I interviewed, who stripped away so much in exchange for so little. And I felt the same fermenting fear that maybe it wouldn’t matter at all.
“The Education of Brett Kavanaugh” doesn’t seek clear answers so much as attempt to write the first iteration of this particular historical record. It even ends with a quote from the Aeneid: “Someday it will be helpful to have recalled even these events.” Living in the minutiae, and maintaining that focus on narrating events rather than opining on or analyzing them, makes this book a remarkable work of slowed-down journalism. At the end, the authors break that journalistic equivalent of the fourth wall and offer their own impressions: “Ultimately,” they write, “we combined our notebooks with our common sense and came to believe an utterly human narrative: that Ford and Ramirez were mistreated by Kavanaugh as a teenager, and that Kavanaugh over the next thirty-five years became a better person.” What impact this conclusion should have on Kavanaugh’s judgeship, they say, is not for them to weigh.
But perhaps that’s the wrong question. In the origin story of each of Kavanaugh’s achievements is a hand up, usually extended by another man. He attends a prestigious high school because his parents can afford it. He is not remembered as a particularly brilliant student nor a particularly political one; he is a blank slate whom few seemed to know well outside of partying and sports. His grades were good, but there are no stories of virtuosity, just a heavy-drinking, clean-cut young man who seemed to be the median kind of person at an elite university like Yale in the 1980s.
But he was born and bred in a universe of privilege and access, and then afforded opportunities and the benefit of the doubt from men who looked like him. Among them: Circuit Court Judge Alex Kozinski, for whom Kavanaugh clerked, and who was eventually felled by accusations of pervasive and blatant harassment and assault of female clerks and employees, including showing them explicit pornographic images and circulating such images on an email list. Kozinski and Kavanaugh wrote a book together and spoke on the same panels; Kozinski also helped screen clerks for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and invited Kavanaugh to assist him. Kavanaugh got the clerkship in the first place because he played basketball with Yale law professor George L. Priest, whom Kozinski called for a clerk recommendation. Priest suggested Kavanaugh, who wasn’t a hugely impressive student, “but I got to know his character from basketball,” Priest told Pogrebin and Kelly. Once Kavanaugh was a judge himself, he hired Kozinski’s son as a clerk, despite the junior Kozinski’s mediocre grades.
Kavanaugh made and remade himself in the image of these men, and so despite being good but not wildly special, he was eventually elevated to the height of his profession.
This is only a small part of the larger story Pogrebin and Kelly are trying to tell. But from their excavation of the simple “what happened?” come more complicated questions. How does power replicate itself, and how do the already powerful hoard it and pass it on to those who, by virtue of gender and race and social position, remind these powerful men of younger versions of themselves? Why do we call this meritocracy? Whose testimony do we take as evidence, and whose becomes a mere “she said”? The life-shifting memory of an attempted rape, the lifelong goal of a Supreme Court seat — which is the smaller thing, and can you even weigh these things on the same scale?
Is credibility a story told in careful tones? Or does it hinge on proof — or at least the willingness to peel everything off and show a scar to a stranger?
This, Pogrebin and Kelly make clear, is outside their paygrade. But the power in this book is the authors’ effort to use their journalistic tools to set the foundation for the reader to consider these bigger, broader questions. The authors try to wrap it up in a way that feels narrow and humble, not straying too far out of their professional lane. They are doing their jobs as journalists and writing the first draft of history. It is up to you, the book suggests, to get to work on the revision.
The Education of Brett Kavanaugh
By Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly
Portfolio. 307 pp. $29