There have been other days—lots of them, actually, when you stop to count—over the past generation when Washington has had the nation gaping at its screens, squirming at the sight of private lives sliced open for public judgment while simultaneously thrilling to the spectacle of it all.
Those earlier are-you-watching-this?! moments, when politics and culture collided on live television amid revelations and recriminations, were inevitably accompanied by furrowed-brow commentary gravely asking, “Where will this all lead?”
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Now we know: This all leads to a hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office building, where Brett Kavanaugh and senators of both parties over eight hallucinatory hours on Wednesday served up the distilled essence of a potion—a toxic mixture of foaming malice, self-righteousness and conspiracy theory—that has been brewing for nearly three decades.
No single exchange broke new historical ground. Kavanaugh’s furious denials of sexual misconduct and denunciations of his Democratic accusers were no more florid than Clarence Thomas’s similar performance 27 years ago this autumn. Valley Girls would have found the discussion about gang rape and efforts to define 1980s vernacular like “ralphing” (to vomit) and “boofed” (“It refers to flatulence,” the nominee said solemnly, though the Urban Dictionary begs to differ) to be grody to the max. But the proceedings could hardly shock the sensibilities of anyone old enough to remember Bill Clinton’s cigar.
More notable was the casual fluency in which all the Washington actors—Kavanaugh very much among them—spoke in the language of contempt toward their adversaries. The insults and assertions of bad faith—Democrats manipulated the timing of Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation going public for political purposes; Republicans are purposefully stifling a full investigation—flowed like second nature.
It was Bill Clinton who made famous the phrase “the politics of personal destruction.” His compromised sex life made him far from the ideal messenger but there was little denying his essential point. It was that his generation of baby boomers, who grew up arguing over sex, drugs and Vietnam and never stopped their rancid debate over every dimension of culture and ideology, had developed a style of politics in which the best way to defeat an argument was to say that it flowed from the defective character of the person making it. The opposition was wicked, deceitful—not just wrong-headed but wrong-hearted.
One grim possibility raised by the Kavanaugh hearing is that the politics of personal destruction has become so ritualized that it has become the politics of institutional destruction.
Kavanaugh is a generation younger than Clinton but it seems possible that his nomination could become a symbol of a brand of politics that doesn’t even nod to the notion that long-term stewardship of democratic institutions is a shared responsibility.
Give the members of the Judiciary Committee credit for sincerity. These people did not seem to be feigning their disdain for one another. No one seemed to be putting up a phony front that they cared more about protecting the integrity of Senate confirmations than they did either killing Kavanaugh’s nomination for Democrats or pushing it through by the barest margins on a partisan vote for Republicans.
Kavanaugh himself glanced at this question of governance. “I am an optimistic guy,” he claimed during an opening statement marked by a quavering voice and indignant scowls. “I always try to be on the sunrise side of the mountain, to be optimistic about the day that is coming. But today, I have to say that I fear for the future. Last time I was here, I told this committee that a federal judge must be independent, not swayed by public or political pressure.”
Detachment is a lot to ask of a guy who has spent his life winning jobs and praise from fellow conservatives and now says he has been wrongly accused of sexual assault. But Kavanaugh seemed utterly uncomprehending of how some people might not regard him as the best person to deliver a self-righteous sermon about civility or keeping the high court insulated from politics.
As a lawyer for Ken Starr during the investigation about whether Clinton abused his power and lied under oath during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Kavanaugh called for grilling the president during his August 1998 testimony in pornographic detail because he regarded Clinton as so pervasively sleazy. “The idea of going easy on him at the questioning is thus abhorrent to me,” Kavanaugh wrote in an email to colleagues at the time.
There was no ironic wink in Kavanaugh’s testimony as he speculated that his Democratic inquisitors—rather than being sincerely troubled by Ford’s calmly stated and detailed accusation—were actually motivated partly by the desire for “revenge on behalf of the Clintons.”
Chief Justice John Roberts, in the eyes of some court observers, has seen it as his responsibility to restore the Supreme Court’s reputation as being detached from partisan warfare. It was this concern for the long-term legitimacy of the court, especially in the wake of a 5-4 vote in Bush v. Gore to settle the 2000 election (a case in which Kavanaugh was helping win for President George W. Bush), that some speculate led him to join a majority ruling in favor of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Was Roberts watching the hearing? And if so what is his enthusiasm for welcoming a colleague who at best could be confirmed by a vote or two, and who accused Democrats of a “grotesque and coordinated character assassination”?
In Clarence Thomas, the current court already has one member who arrived under a cloud of personal controversy. After 27 years, the hearing at which he stood angrily against the accusations of Anita Hill and her Democratic supporters is still by far the most well-known thing about him.
In context, Kavanaugh did not seem to be vowing revenge if he gets on the court. But nor was he providing any reassurance to skeptics concerned about the judicial fairness of a man with a career history as a partisan, and so plainly aggrieved at Democrats, when he observed, “As we all know, in the United States political system of the early 2000s, what goes around comes around.” Earlier he told Democrats, “You sowed the wind for decades to come. I fear the whole country will reap the whirlwind.”
In keeping with the day’s implied theme—that a judgment over whether Kavanaugh is a good person or a bad one is what matters most, not what’s best for the reputation of the court—Kavanaugh spent much of his time offering praise for himself.
“Senator, I was at the top of my class academically, busted my butt in school,” he told Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) “Captain of the varsity basketball team. Got in Yale College. When I got into Yale College, got into Yale Law School. Worked my tail off.”
When Whitehouse made clear he wanted to ask about his drinking during those years—and whether these affected his behavior around women or his memory—rather than Kavanaugh’s academic or athletic achievements, the nominee responded: “I like beer. I don’t know if you do…
“OK,” said Whitehouse.
“Do you like beer, senator, or not?” Kavanaugh pressed.
Whitehouse: “Um, next…”
Kavanaugh: “What do you like to drink?”
Whitehouse: “Next one is…”
Kavanaugh: “Senator, what do you like to drink?”
A session that could descend into snarling over drinking preference was not likely to answer the ostensible question of the day: What, if anything, happened between Kavanaugh and Ford at a suburban Maryland house in 1982? “One hundred percent” said Ford, of her confidence that Kavanaugh was the young man who assaulted her. “One hundred percent,” said Kavanaugh, of his confidence that no encounter with Ford of any kind occurred.
By the time of this afternoon exchange, in any event, Ford’s morning testimony—with its combination of nervous vulnerability about being at the center of a national storm and steadfast self-confidence in her claims of an assault by Kavanaugh—already seemed distant.
In a day of emotional peaks, one of the last belonged to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who sometimes gets hailed as an example of a bridge-builder across partisan lines but not on this day. In an angry outburst that set the tone for the remainder of the afternoon, he called the session “a sham.”
Then he uttered words that it is possible, these days, to imagine almost any senator of either party uttering about the other party: “Boy, you guys want power. I hope you never get it.”