Republicans can do better than Kavanaugh

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

Many years ago, when I was a kid just out of journalism school, I faced an impossible choice between two big organizations, a newspaper and a magazine, that were willing to give me a chance. I called one of my favorite professors, the brilliant writer Roger Rosenblatt, for advice.

Roger asked me less about the beats I might be covering than about the editors I’d be working for, some of whom he knew (and didn’t especially trust). And then he offered a bit of wisdom that guided me for many years after, in many situations.

“At this level of the business, everybody’s smart,” he told me, “but not everybody’s good.”

That small bit of life advice keeps coming back to me this week, as I watch the unfolding tragedy of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination reach its climactic final act. I say tragic because, no matter how the Judiciary Committee votes after Christine Blasey Ford has her say Thursday, there’s a better-than-even chance that someone’s reputation, either Ford’s or Kavanaugh’s or both, will have been unfairly smeared.

I’ve never met Kavanaugh, and I had no particular feeling about him when he first took the stand for what seemed like a routine confirmation hearing. But the more I see of Kavanaugh — and this isn’t really about the tawdry allegations swirling around him now — the less I think he belongs on the court when there are so many other qualified jurists waiting in line.

Because the fact is that at this elite level of the American judiciary, everybody’s smart. But not everybody’s good.

Let me just say, before you howl about my liberal bias and the deep state conspiracy and whatever else, that I happen to believe in the old maxim about elections having consequences, and I think presidents — including this one, and including his predecessor, whose last pick never got a hearing — have a right to seat justices who reflect their worldviews.

If it were up to me, every Supreme Court justice would be a temperamental independent whose only ideology was a complex reading of the law. Then again, if it were up to me, the man bun would disappear, and every wedding I went to would serve In-N-Out burgers.

So I wouldn’t have thought twice about confirming Trump’s first pick, Neil Gorsuch, and I’d have no issue with another conservative justice who’s as qualified, on paper, as Kavanaugh clearly is.

I’ll also admit that I’m uncomfortable with the way some of the latest allegations against Kavanaugh have been reported in this #MeToo moment, when every guy is presumed guilty pending a public trial, and I don’t assume they’re all true or fairly reported.

We’re being dishonest if we don’t acknowledge that there are plenty of people out there who would consider it a heroic act to kill this nomination, and those political motives can’t be divorced from hazy memories that suddenly get sharper after 30 years. I do worry about the precedent it sets.

But a trying process like this one tells us something about who you are, and how you relate to the experience of others, and how you define virtue. And the longer this goes on, the more these confirmation hearings seem to reveal about Kavanaugh’s character.

It started, for me, on the very first day of the hearings, when Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter was killed in the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., approached Kavanaugh with his hand outstretched and tried to introduce himself. Kavanaugh, looking like he’d just swallowed spoiled milk, buttoned his suit jacket and turned away.

Well, OK, I thought, maybe he was confused by everything going on around him and didn’t know what he was doing. Maybe he had a bad, awkward moment, as we all do. He did apologize later, saying he thought Guttenberg was a protester (although why you’d refuse to shake the hand of a peaceful protester is a question he left unanswered).

Only I’ve watched that video again and again, and every time I wince. I can’t really imagine stiffing somebody for no reason like that, let alone a grieving parent. I have trouble getting the image of it out of my mind.

Then there’s this memo Kavanaugh wrote when he was working on Ken Starr’s team during the Clinton administration, in which he urged Starr to show the sitting president no “slack.” Much of the coverage of that memo fixated on the extraordinarily explicit questions Kavanaugh wanted Starr to ask.

But if you read the short memo, what comes across, even more than a schoolkid’s obsession with anatomy, is a contempt and moralism that even Starr, an archconservative and Clinton’s chief nemesis, wanted no part of.

The polemicist who wrote that memo is politically bloodthirsty. He displays no grace.

And then I watched Kavanaugh’s interview with Martha MacCallum on Fox News, in which he dragged his poor wife in front of the camera (much like the former president he so despised) and repeated a series of rote, carefully honed phrases, betraying all the warmth and humanity of a Russian Twitter account.

Four times during the opening minutes of the interview, he told MacCallum he had always treated women with “dignity and respect,” which I guess is the formulation his Republican handlers came up with, although it sounded to me like the way you’d talk about people who are severely disabled, or maybe recently emancipated from serfdom.

Twice he recited a stock line about concentrating on his “service projects” and going to church and playing basketball as a high school student, as if this left him not a minute of the day to contemplate the opposite sex.

He portrayed himself as a prudish virgin well into his 20s, which leaves us to assume that the obnoxious jock who wrote his yearbook entry about implicit conquests and weekend keggers — who went to Yale and immediately joined the most notorious and revolting fraternity on campus — must have been an alter ego, like Slim Shady.

As I wrote last week, I don’t really care if Kavanaugh was a punk in high school or college. I care if he lies about it, or if he’s completely blocked out the memory of someone he might have hurt, or if he hasn’t grown enough since then to see that the kid who wrote in that yearbook wasn’t really the best version of himself.

I don’t know if Kavanaugh did what Ford said he did; Americans will judge that for themselves soon enough, and maybe they won’t think it matters.

What I know is that the nominee who’s emerged during these hearings doesn’t seem like a cerebral, contemplative conservative in the mold of Gorsuch or John Roberts.

Kavanaugh shows no obvious capacity for self-doubt or compassion toward his adversaries, no ability to grow beyond the parochial loyalties of prep school or the frat house. He’s a guy who thinks virtue lies in showing up at church and coaching kids’ basketball, but who will somehow turn his back on a man who’s just buried his daughter.

Simply put, I fear there’s a meanness to Kavanaugh’s brand of conservatism, a bullying self-certainty that shows itself in too many moments to ignore. These ugly few weeks haven’t brought out the best in him, I’m sure, but they’ve brought out something nonetheless.

And there’s just no need for Republicans to inflict that on us with a lifetime appointment. There are plenty of conservative jurists waiting in line — more conservative, even — who would bring a reassuring temperament and broadness of perspective to the bench.

All of them are smart. Some of them have to be good.

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