What Kavanaugh deserves — and what we deserve from him

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty

“We want to make sure everything is perfect,” President Trump said the other day about the delay in confirming Brett Kavanaugh, as if he were throwing the judge a surprise birthday party or sending him off on a Carnival cruise. By that point, it was clear that everything was, in fact, not perfect.

Trump’s safe choice for the high court, the insiders’ pick he had to be talked into, has instead become pretty much the last thing on earth he and his party needed so close to the midterm elections — yet another sinkhole opened by the tectonic shift of the #MeToo movement.

If you’re the kind of partisan voter who puts on the team jersey and follows the playbook, no matter what the score or where it leads, then you probably know how you feel about Kavanaugh’s situation.

If, however, you’re someone who tries to appreciate all the complications of an issue, rather than starting with the political objective and working backward from there, then I’m betting you feel a lot like I do when it comes to the Senate’s deliberations — conflicted, concerned and not a little disgusted.

The standoff over Kavanaugh and a troubling allegation stemming from a teen party 36 years ago raises a series of questions I’ve thought and written about a lot over the years, which get to the heart of how we assess character — especially in someone who, if handed the job, will have it for life.

Let’s walk through a few of them.

The first question, of course, is whether the accusation is true. As you’ve no doubt heard, Christine Blasey Ford claims that Kavanaugh, two years her senior, drunkenly attacked her at a party, pinning her to a bed, trying to remove her clothes and stifling her screams, while his buddy watched and laughed and — weirdly — leaped on top of them.

All we can really do here is assess the credibility of Ford’s account. It probably means something that she has repeated it many times in private venues over the years. She names Mark Judge, still a close friend of Kavanaugh’s, as the eyewitness, which would be a pretty dumb thing to do if you were making up a malicious story you wanted people to believe.

I suppose it’s possible, if unlikely, that Ford confused Kavanaugh with some other prep school kid she barely knew. To me, Ford’s account seemed more credible and more independent before she declined to testify and called for an FBI investigation, which put her squarely in league with Democrats trying to delay Kavanaugh’s nomination. That felt political, and maybe her lawyer isn’t serving her well.

But leaving those machinations aside, it certainly seems like Ford believes every word of her own story and that at least some substantial part of it has to be true.

A second, more complicated question, is whether the story, if it is in fact true, ought to be disqualifying.

The easiest answer to give here is that Kavanaugh’s behavior, if that’s the case, was disgusting and probably criminal (it was), and that he showed no remorse (he didn’t), and that he thought so little of this girl that he doesn’t even recall the specific incident (which I guess is possible).

In this moment of national catharsis, the best way for a guy like me to prove himself above suspicion — or try to, anyway — is to agree that the accused is morally irredeemable and send him into permanent exile.

Except that, as I’ve written before, none of us ought to be defined by the ugliest moments of our lives — and especially not our teenage lives. As I was once told by Bob Kerrey, the former senator who went through his own painful public reckoning over his actions as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam, we are not the worst things we’ve ever done.

Kerrey’s fellow Democrats must believe this, too, by the way, because they stood by Bill Clinton through all the odious disclosures of his private behavior, and they still lionize the late Ted Kennedy, who was responsible for a woman’s death in Chappaquiddick. Neither was 17 years old at the time.

Character demands context. The moral arc of a lifetime matters. Not everything is equally relevant.

Mistakes of youth can be humiliating and painful, but they can also help you grow into a more serious, more compassionate adult. To my mind, Kavanaugh deserves the opportunity, at least, to be judged through that wider lens.

This, however, leads me to what I think is now the central question surrounding Kavanaugh’s imperiled nomination.

Is Kavanaugh lying to us now when he says that none of this could possibly have happened? And what does that categorical denial tell us about his fitness to serve?

Because whatever else is or isn’t true, whatever has been clouded in memory by 36 intervening years, a few things about Kavanaugh back then seem undeniable.

He traveled in the same social circle as Ford, or at least for a while. He was immature and callow. He probably wasn’t great to the girls he knew. He drank more than a kid should.

It’s something he himself alluded to, later, when he joked to graduates of his fancy prep school: “What happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep. That’s been a good thing for all of us, I think.”

Judge, the buddy whom Ford places in the room that night, later wrote a fictionalized addiction memoir, in which a character named “Bart O’Kavanaugh” drinks himself into a vomiting fit.

Like I said, high school isn’t the totality of a life. But here’s the point: There are plenty of ways someone as eloquent as Kavanaugh could have responded publicly to the allegation against him.

He could have said: “Like a lot of misguided teenagers, I drank irresponsibly, and I have only vague memories of that time. I am certain as I stand here today that I never attacked anyone, and I have no specific recollection of Dr. Ford. But if I or any of my friends were involved in immature behavior that was painful to anyone at the time, I regret it.”

He could have said, in effect: Judge me for my lifetime of service, not for whatever may have happened at 17 that I was too stupid and drunk to remember.

But that’s not what Kavanaugh is saying. He dismisses not only the allegation but the context around it. He says he wasn’t that kind of kid. He says he wasn’t there, in the house Ford can describe in detail.

He makes a victim of her all over again, by essentially calling her delusional. He makes no allowance for the possibility that his own memory is blurred by inebriated youth.

And maybe there is a pattern here. This is essentially what Kavanaugh did when he was asked, during his last confirmation hearing for the federal bench, whether he had been involved in internal discussions over the detention of enemy combatants during the George W. Bush administration.

He denied it completely, when in fact the more complicated truth, that he had been tangential to those discussions but sometimes involved, would have sufficed. Just as he flatly rejected the assertion that he’d ever lived beyond his means and racked up credit card debt to pay for it, even though the truth was probably more shaded than that, and not really so damning.

My fear about Kavanaugh isn’t that he’s a sexual predator; barring new revelations, there’s no evidence to suggest he is.

My fear is that his experiences as a partying teenager didn’t actually teach him a hell of a lot about fallibility or shame. He seems not to have emerged with much appreciation for the gray areas in which most larger truths reside.

A Supreme Court justice doesn’t need to be a perfect person, or to have led an unfailingly exemplary life. None of us can say that. But, especially on a divided court in a divided nation, we deserve a justice who demonstrates a capacity for nuance, reflection and humility.

Whatever else is true about him, Brett Kavanaugh doesn’t seem to be that guy.

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