Why the Kavanaugh Confirmation Still Haunts Us

The power of the stories is how normal they are.

Brett Kavanaugh
Alex Edelman / Getty

On Sunday, The New York Times published an excerpt of a new book on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh by Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly. The snippet focused on the story of Deborah Ramirez—a classmate of Kavanaugh’s at Yale, who alleged he had exposed himself to her at a college party. While Kavanaugh angrily waved off reports of such behavior during his confirmation hearing, Pogrebin and Kelly wrote that they found both Ramirez’s claim, and Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation of a drunken attempted assault by a high-school-aged Kavanaugh, to be credible.

That was all it took. The president punched out tweet after tweet demanding retribution for the “lies” told about the justice. By the end of Monday, several Democratic presidential candidates had called for Kavanaugh’s impeachment.

So here we are, a year later. The wounds are not going to heal.

The staying power of the Kavanaugh story—or perhaps the Christine Blasey Ford story, or the Deborah Ramirez story—is how normal it is. This might be a strange thing to say about a controversy involving a president, a Supreme Court justice, and some of the most selective schools in the United States. But the broad outlines of the story are so familiar as to be almost archetypal, and for that reason it has the same power that fables do: We can find in it the shadow of our own pain. As Vox’s Jane Coaston notes, many conservatives writing in the fall of 2018 seemed to see themselves or those they knew in Kavanaugh: a rambunctious boy who grows up into, as the conservative commentator Rod Dreher wrote, an “ordinary, bland Republican man,” unjustly persecuted. And many found the allegations themselves similarly familiar. In a second excerpt from their book, published in The Atlantic, Pogrebin and Kelly quote a sex-crimes prosecutor calling Ford’s account a description of “a very bread-and-butter acquaintance sexual assault.”

Something is odd about Brett Kavanaugh—student first at an elite prep school, then Yale College, then Yale Law School, as he emphasized again and again during his confirmation hearing—playing the role of an everyman. But he can still be the essential American boy. Less at home in the fairy tale of elite American colleges, according to Pogrebin and Kelly, was Deborah Ramirez, who came to Yale as a smart student making do with loans and work-study jobs and who struggled to fit in with her wealthier classmates. Ramirez, the reporters write, was “unsettled” by her freshman-year interaction with Kavanaugh: According to her, he pulled down his pants in front of her at a party, leading her to accidentally touch him. Some partygoers laughed. The incident, Ramirez told Pogrebin and Kelly, “ripped away” her self-image as well behaved and studious; she described the joke played on her as a way to “make it clear I’m not smart.”

Many conservative commentators have focused on another allegation of similar behavior by the college-aged Kavanaugh contained in the book, noting that the second woman to whom he allegedly exposed himself has told friends she does not remember the incident. What struck me, though, was not the alleged second interaction, but Ramirez’s story, and in particular her account of the glee of her classmates. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” Christine Blasey Ford said at the Senate hearing, when asked what she remembered of her own alleged encounter, in which she said Kavanaugh climbed on top of her while his friend watched. “The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.”

There are many people who are bullies when young and remain bullies. The irony is that—even if the allegations about his behavior as a young man are true—Kavanaugh was not, by all accounts, a bully as an adult. The opposite, in fact. He was known as a mentor to young women trying to find their footing in elite circles adjacent to those from which Deborah Ramirez felt shut out—particularly young conservative women, for whom mentors in the legal field can be hard to find. Pogrebin and Kelly cited “dozens of former clerks, many of them women” who told them about Kavanaugh’s “mentorship, his warmth, his eagerness to help advance their professional prospects, and his willingness to support their personal lives, including raising families.” Ultimately, the reporters wrote, they “came to believe an utterly human narrative: that Ford and Ramirez were mistreated by Kavanaugh when he was a teenager, and that Kavanaugh over the next 35 years became a better person.”

Similar character references provoked mockery from Kavanaugh’s opponents throughout the confirmation process, even before Ford’s allegations became public. (“Shut the Hell Up About Brett Kavanaugh Being a Nice Guy,” read a representative objection.) So, too, were stories about Kavanaugh’s warmth and openness as a mentor. Yet those testimonials matter, not because they are exonerating—they aren’t—but because they give context to the very particular pain of learning that a person widely known to be decent is alleged to have done an unforgivable thing.

If Kavanaugh had been known as a bully and a creep, the allegations against him might have been almost expected. But he was known as a good man—and if the allegations are true, that means that men who are good may have done very bad things. The ability to accurately judge character is not a protection against being betrayed.

Kavanaugh’s confirmation took place a year after news reports alleged that Harvey Weinstein had assaulted and raped women over whom he had power. In 2019, the bad man in the headlines is Jeffrey Epstein—whose recent death by suicide stole some opportunity for justice from the many women he abused, but has not stopped reporters from unspooling story after story about the many decent people who chose to take his money. The misdeeds ripple outward. Kavanaugh, unlike Weinstein or Epstein, is not a monster—but what he touches will always be distorted by the allegations against him. To many observers, Pogrebin and Kelly among them, the ordinary American boy is now part of a story that is becoming ever more rote in the era of the #MeToo movement and Donald Trump, about men who do bad things and the people and institutions that help them get away with it.

After the Senate confirmed Kavanaugh, I spent some time considering what it would look like to engage professionally and morally with the Supreme Court as both a journalist writing about law and a person who believed Christine Blasey Ford. How could I address the legal work of a Justice Kavanaugh, or a case in which he is the deciding vote? Is keeping in mind the accusations against him and his rage in front of the Senate the ethical thing to do? Is it more responsible to push that away and focus only on the law, or does that amount to a grant of absolution?

I never reached an answer.