the national circus

A Moment of Truth for Brett Kavanaugh?

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, Christine Blasey Ford and the many questions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s potential confirmation.

After saying that an FBI investigation “should be the first step” of addressing her allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, and with a Senate hearing scheduled for Monday, Christine Blasey Ford is now in a standoff with Republican leadership. Is her request fair?

Ford’s request is more than fair. She is saying you don’t have to take only my word for it. She is saying let’s bring in a dispassionate and highly professional law enforcement agency to investigate whether a man nominated for a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land attempted to rape me in high school. She is saying let’s have due process and the rule of law take precedence over the political circus of a Senate Judiciary Committee in which all the interrogators of the majority party are men out to destroy anyone, and especially any woman, who gets in the way of their goal of muscling Kavanaugh into the Supreme Court much as Kavanaugh may have tried to muscle Ford into sex.

It is hard to blame Ford if she elects not to appear in Washington on Monday. Since revealing her identity, she has received death threats, has been maliciously impersonated online, and had her email hacked. Matt Drudge and Laura Ingraham, in their zeal to destroy her, used their platforms to pillory the professional standing of a woman they said was Ford but who turned out to be another woman with a similar name. Ford is being trashed by the likes of the Judiciary Committee member Orrin Hatch (who suggested she was “mistaken” and “mixed up”) and condescended to by his cohort Lindsey Graham, a zealous pseudo-defender of women when he served as a prosecutor in the Bill Clinton impeachment. “I’ll listen to the lady,” he said, not dignifying “the lady” with a name, “but we’re going to bring this to a close.”

It would take someone of rare courage to turn up before this lynch mob. Already she and her family have had to go into hiding out of fear for their safety. But easy as it is for me or anyone else to say, I hope Ford goes to Washington.

By every account, she is an exemplary figure in her professional and personal life. Yet for all the national focus on her at this moment, there is no clear public image of her, and no sense of how she speaks or sounds. Lacking that information, Republican senators who stand poised to demean her are left to their own crude imaginations and no doubt assume they’ll be squaring off against some harridan in line with their misogynist fantasies. Once confronted with the real Ford, they are likely to be nonplussed and outwitted. They will bully her on the national stage of television at their peril. And should these senators try to duck that confrontation by delegating the questioning to a female surrogate — a strategy that’s been floated this week — they will look like little boys cowering behind a woman’s skirt.

Should Ford appear, it won’t hurt, either, that she’ll be up against an 85-year-old committee chairman, Chuck Grassley, who is doddering. “I’d hate to have somebody ask me what I did 35 years ago,” he said this week, apparently under the misapprehension that he was delivering a witty expression of solidarity with Kavanaugh’s memory lapse. As at least one observer pointed out on Twitter, Grassley was in the Senate 35 years ago, voting against a holiday in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King. No wonder he, like Kavanaugh, chooses to forget.

Kavanaugh’s confirmation, which once looked unstoppable, may now be starting to unravel. Will he be confirmed?

Anything can happen in this volatile national drama, from Susan Collins stepping forward to speed his quick confirmation next week to unforeseen events that could upend Monday’s proposed hearing altogether. But I’d say Kavanaugh’s public standing, already subpar for a Supreme Court nominee according to recent polls, is unraveling by the hour. He’s on his way to becoming more political trouble than he’s worth for a White House and a party in growing fear of an Election Day massacre in America’s suburbs. Having been caught lying in his previous confirmation hearings for federal judgeships in 2004 and 2006, Kavanaugh is now having trouble getting his story straight as he tries to ward off Ford. As Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo asked, “How can Kavanaugh deny being at the party where there’s very few specifics about which party it even was?” The witness Ford cited in recounting her horrific night, Kavanaugh’s pal Mark Judge, is also a big question mark. In carefully worded public statements, Judge is claiming he saw and heard no evil. But he has not said so under oath. The fact that Grassley and his fellow GOP committee members won’t compel this Kavanaugh-friendly witness to testify is itself evidence that they are worried about what he might say when legally bound to tell the truth. What will they do if other witnesses turn up?

Among the other weird unexplained developments in this story is the letter that appeared immediately after Ford’s accusations became public in which 65 women who claimed to have known Kavanaugh in high school testified to his high moral fiber. Kavanaugh went to Georgetown Prep, an all-boys school. Did he really have 65 female contemporaries who knew him that well? Almost everything we learn about Kavanaugh raises more questions than it answers — from his large credit card debt to his salivating memo, as a Kenneth Starr deputy, proposing that Bill Clinton be grilled about Monica Lewinsky’s presumed orgasms.

It was no surprise to learn from the Washington Post that among those in the White House conducting a “murder board” to prepare Kavanaugh for his potential showdown with Ford before the Judiciary Committee is Bill Shine, the former Fox News executive who did nothing to curtail Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly’s reign of sexual terror. If Kavanaugh were really a legal mind of Supreme Court caliber, wouldn’t he now be steering clear of someone so famously associated with condoning a criminal culture of rape?

In 1991, Anita Hill’s testimony about Clarence Thomas introduced the concept of sexual harassment to the American consciousness, and Thomas’s subsequent confirmation to the Court, as well as memories of the all-male Judiciary Committee’s treatment of Hillhave set expectations for a generation. Nearly three decades later, in the era of #MeToo, does the Kavanaugh case suggest that we have we not come as far as one might hope?

For all our progress since then, I fear that’s the case. It’s hardly progress when our president has been accused of serial sexual assaults. It’s not progress when the majority party all these years later still can’t field a single woman on the Senate Judiciary Committee. It’s not progress when The Wall Street Journal, which back then devoted its editorial pages to the character assassination of Anita Hill, is trying to do the same to Christine Blasey Ford. Such is the generational continuity of this animus that one of the moralizing Journal editorialists defending Kavanaugh’s alleged transgressions this week (“No clothes were removed, and no sexual penetration occurred”) is the son of Hugh Morrow, the Nelson Rockefeller flack notorious for having told the press his boss died working at his desk when in fact he died during a tryst with an underling more than three decades his junior.

In the interest of bipartisanship it should be mentioned that it was also this week that Michael Bloomberg, even while floating the possibility that he might run for president as a Democrat, expressed skepticism that Charlie Rose was guilty of the sexual harassment (and worse) that nearly three dozen women detailed to the Washington Post. If it sometimes seems that we heard Anita Hill’s testimony of 27 years ago only yesterday, that’s because its urgency is undiminished today.

Frank Rich: A Moment of Truth for Brett Kavanaugh?