What matters about Kavanaugh, and what doesn't

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

Democrats in Congress finally got the FBI investigation into Brett Kavanaugh’s past for which they’ve been loudly clamoring these past few weeks, thanks to the affecting testimony from his chief accuser and the dramatic turnabout of a principled Republican senator.

And President Trump has actually managed to put aside his antipathy for federal law enforcement long enough to let the investigation play out, deferring to Senate Republicans generally and assuring the FBI, through his lawyer, that it can expand the inquiry however it sees fit. That’s more than I would have expected.

So you’d think that maybe, just this one time, we could all actually do something critical for the country — mainly to get some clarity on all the charges and countercharges that were flying around the Senate hearing room last week, with nothing less than a Supreme Court seat hanging in the balance — without the whole thing devolving into some kind of trivial, self-abasing public circus.

You’d be wrong.

Because while the FBI is doing what it’s supposed to do, which is to determine whether Kavanaugh blatantly misled the Judiciary Committee on some key facts, Democrats and a lathered-up news media have decided that the truest test of Kavanaugh’s character is whether anyone anywhere ever saw him drunk, or whether he ever acted like a full-on idiot in college.

In case you’re coming late to this space, let me just pause here to say that this is the third time in as many weeks that I’ve written about Kavanaugh’s nomination. I already made the point that his lack of reflection and nuance when it came to all of this made him a dubious candidate for the court, and that Republicans could find someone better.

Nothing I saw at his combative appearance before the Judiciary Committee led me to think otherwise. I found Kavanaugh’s evident nostalgia for his prep school days to be a little cloying and creepy in a middle-aged man.

But that’s an entirely separate matter from whether he’s confirmable or not, and so is most of the other stuff that suddenly qualifies as news about Kavanaugh’s youth.

Seriously, why do we care if some guy who knew Kavanaugh in his freshman year claims he drank too much and sometimes got mean? And how does it matter to anyone if Kavanaugh got into a bar fight in 1985 and threw ice at a guy, or if he and his high school buddies once trashed a beach house?

I stole a street sign once in high school. It didn’t make me a car thief.

Yes, I understand, Kavanaugh told the Judiciary Committee he wasn’t a crazy party animal and never blacked out. So I guess the argument is that if he would shade the truth about his teenage drinking, then he would lie about anything — up to and including sexual assault.

But just because he might doesn’t mean he did. And we also have to at least acknowledge the fact that an awful lot of Kavanaugh’s Yale classmates are liberals who would love to deal a mortal blow to his nomination, and it’s really not fair that any one of them can now get themselves on CNN to spout sinister recollections of his freshman persona.

What’s happening this week is that the controversy around Kavanaugh’s confirmation ordeal is starting to feel less like an extension of the #MeToo moment and more like the John Tower hearings of 1989.

Tower, a former senator, was President George H.W. Bush’s pick for defense secretary, but his nomination got swept up in allegations of drinking and womanizing — a vortex of innuendo propelled largely by the confluence of Democrats looking for a scalp and conservatives who had never forgiven him for backing Gerald Ford over Ronald Reagan in 1976.

Tower became the first Cabinet nominee from a new president ever voted down by the Senate — and an enduring symbol of how ugly and personally ruinous our politics had suddenly become.

Kavanaugh doesn’t deserve that kind of martyrdom. He stands accused by a credible witness on the public record of having attacked and humiliated her as a young man, and if it’s even partly true, then he’s chillingly remorseless about it.

If he knows he’s lying, or even if he doesn’t know for a fact that it didn’t happen, then he’s allowing this woman, Christine Blasey Ford, to be mocked and degraded all over again, and that would be inexcusable.

But that — and not his weekly beer intake, or his having gotten tossed from a bar, or even his obnoxious behavior toward senators on the committee at last week’s hearing — is the thing that would truly keep him from serving. That’s the thing that will cost him critical Republican votes.

We’re likely never going to know with certainty whether Kavanaugh did what his accusers say he did. But a few things are both knowable and relevant, and hopefully the FBI is more focused on them than grandstanding Democrats and cable hosts are.

First, there’s this question of what Mark Judge, Kavanaugh’s high school buddy and later a conservative gadfly, told agents when they spoke to him Tuesday.

Ford puts Judge in the room when the assault took place, which would be an absolutely crazy thing to do if she were lying about what she recalled. Judge has said nothing publicly beyond denying that the attack took place.

If he was any more equivocal than that with the FBI agents, even just to allow that a party like the one she describes might have taken place, then it’s much harder to dismiss her story.

Second, there’s the case of Chris Garrett, whom Kavanaugh calls “Squi,” for reasons we probably don’t want to know. Garrett was all over Kavanaugh’s handwritten calendars from that summer, and Ford told the committee something very significant — that she had dated Garrett for a while.

You’d have to assume the FBI knocked on Garrett’s door. And if Garrett admitted to having dated Ford that summer, then Kavanaugh is almost certainly dissembling when he says he doesn’t remember socializing with her. It would cast fatal doubt on everything else he says.

These questions go right to the heart of Kavanaugh’s integrity and his fitness to serve. But by flying off in all directions to air 35-year-old stories about whether Kavanaugh partied too much or threw an occasional punch, hyperventilating critics in the press and the opposition party do something worse than trivialize the process.

They risk making Trump look right about their motives, and Kavanaugh look like a man deserving of sympathy.

They make it appear for all the world that the resistance to Kavanaugh’s nomination is more about destroying his reputation than it is about making sure we don’t put a liar — or, worse yet, a sexual aggressor — on the most important court in the country for the rest of his life.

For Democrats, that kind of overreach is a pretty good way to squander what should be a historic advantage heading into the midterm elections. And for a besieged media, hysterical reporting of college bar fights would seem like a pretty good way to waste whatever credibility we’ve earned.

Let’s let the FBI do its job this week. And while we’re at it, let’s consider what it means to do ours.

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