Brett Kavanaugh Is Lying. So Are You.
To opponents of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, two things could hardly be more clear.
The first is that Christine Blasey Ford in her Senate testimony last week was speaking a profound truth about an ugly night in her youth and the way it shadowed her life for decades. The second is that he was lying about small details in obvious ways that fundamentally undermine his denials about what happened in 1982, and even more fundamentally undermine his credibility to serve on the Supreme Court.
But many of these same people who are so certain about these two points seem to be genuinely perplexed, judging from conversations and their commentary online, on another: How is all this remotely OK with Kavanaugh’s supporters? Do they really think that sexual assault and lying under oath are no big deal?
Kavanaugh’s defenders answer with an incredulous question of their own: Can his Democratic pursuers really think it is OK to take the fragmentary and disjointed memories of adolescents and young adults from 36 years ago to destroy the reputation of an accomplished public servant now in middle age?
The mutual incomprehension shines a light on what has been one of the recurring themes of American politics for journalists of my generation: the human capacity to tolerate and even embrace small lies if they are in service of someone’s larger truth.
If you insist this phenomenon does not apply to you, the chances are you are lying—at least to yourself.
For progressives who dislike Kavanaugh, the comparison between the judge’s bristling, self-righteous—and, in spots, plainly misleading—testimony and that of Clarence Thomas 27 years ago is easy. Nothing in the decades since then has shaken their confidence that Anita Hill was telling the truth, and that Thomas was too much of an ideological zealot to belong on the court.
A less comfortable analogy for both sides: Bill Clinton. Certainly, it raises prickly questions for Kavanaugh. Like me (I was a White House reporter at the time), Kavanaugh spent more than a year of his life consumed with the seamy details of West Wing fellatio and Clinton’s lies, followed by grudging partial truths, about the same.
Kavanaugh played a critical role as a Clinton pursuer—no doubt he “busted my butt,” in the phrase he invoked four times in his testimony—as a top deputy to independent counsel Kenneth Starr.
The Starr crowd, there seemed little doubt, sincerely believed in the work they were doing. They also believed their own self-justifying claims—which seemed patently absurd to the other side—that it was not Clinton’s itinerant sexual appetites that outraged them but his lies and his supposed belief that conventional rules of right and wrong didn’t apply to him.
Clinton’s lies in that year of scandal started in January 1998 with the finger-wagging claim that he did not “have sexual relations with that woman.” By August, a long trail of crumbs had long since made clear that he had not been telling the truth, as he was forced to testify to Starr’s grand jury. But Clinton’s supporters, like Kavanaugh’s now, by this point were less concerned with the literal truth about his sexual behavior or his statements about it than they were with the larger power struggle Starr’s inquiry had set loose.
The year began with a big question—Is the president a man of integrity?—that Clinton and his defenders succeeded in reducing to a series of comically small ones: Could the president truthfully deny being “alone” with a woman in his office if a Secret Service agent was standing behind a closed door outside? Does it count as “sexual relations” if a woman stimulates a man’s genitals but not vice versa? Was she an intern or a full-time employee when the affair began? Even on these matters there was plenty of evidence—captured in the articles of impeachment that then-Rep. Lindsey Graham and GOP colleagues prosecuted on the Senate floor—that Clinton was still not being fully truthful in his grand jury testimony.
Skipping over such lurid minutiae, most Democrats, and plenty of others—in the end, about two-thirds or more of the country—joined Clinton in embracing his larger truth: The investigation was a partisan vendetta, delving into private matters that had no place in the public square. In a televised speech acknowledging his affair, Clinton gave a brief apology in a flat tone and then launched into an animated attack on the unfairness of his inquisitors that came seven years after Clarence Thomas’ and 20 years before Brett Kavanaugh’s.
Most Kavanaugh defenders probably do not literally believe that his yearbook boasting about membership in the “Renate Alumnius Club” was intended as a gesture of affection to a valued friend, or that his reference to “ralphing” could have referred to his sensitivity to spicy foods, that “Devil’s Triangle” is a variant of the drinking game quarters, or that he doesn’t know that the legal drinking age in Maryland was 21, not 18, in the summer of 1982. But they do believe his larger truth—little different from Clinton’s, though delivered at higher volume and with even more belligerence—that the attacks on him are motivated by politics.
The question of truth and lies in politics is further clouded by the reality that public debate, in my experience, often touches only glancingly at the kind of things people really think and argue in private.
Many Kavanaugh supporters, reading between the lines, have a larger truth that goes something like this: “Who knows for sure what happened? Probably something bad, but maybe not exactly like she remembers. Most people could not withstand an inquisition into decades-old behavior, and, in any event, Democrats don’t really care about the truth, they care about beating him.”
Many Kavanaugh opponents have a larger truth that goes something like this: “No serious person could doubt that Christine Ford was speaking the truth. We don’t need to show that he is Harvey Weinstein to prove that he doesn’t belong on the Supreme Court. It is precisely the instinct to look away from bad behavior that allows the Weinsteins and Matt Lauers to fester. The hearing made clear that the smug and entitled young man of 1982 has grown into the smug and entitled middle-aged man of 2018 in ways that go far in explaining his conservative worldview.”
Surely there are some people who are immune to the phenomenon—people whose notions of truth and virtue are so fixed that they hew to these values even when they lead to a destination they don’t prefer. But not too many, in my experience.
For all the raised voices of the past two weeks, there are scant few who previously were Kavanaugh’s enthusiastic supporters who now think his nomination must be opposed. Nor many who are dead-set against him but still agree with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) that it is horribly suspect the way allegations made privately in the summer did not spring publicly until days before a confirmation vote in the fall.
Metaphysical discussions about the nature of truth, of course, can’t be employed as an excuse to evade literal accuracy when a nominee is answering questions about whether he is fit for a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court.
“His lies under oath were not little lies,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) wrote on Twitter. “He specifically lied [about a yearbook reference to] ‘Devil’s Triangle’ because it was about sex. He specifically lied about ‘ralphing’ because it was about inebriation.”
Former FBI Director James Comey wrote in the New York Times that trained agents “know that little lies point to bigger lies. They know that obvious lies by the nominee about the meaning of words in a yearbook are a flashing signal to dig deeper.”
Several friends and colleagues have a hunch about what happened in 1982, and a fantasy about what they wish he would say now: “We drank a lot—way too much—in those days. I am not a sexual predator and I have no memory of an incident like Christine Blasey Ford describes. But the evidence suggests I was involved in some type of reckless behavior that caused her deep pain. If so, I am sorry and ask for forgiveness.”
Some might have found that credible. But, after a generation of remorseless Washington scandals—from Clinton’s to President Donald Trump’s—it’s not obvious this approach would have been shrewd from the narrow perspective of maximizing Kavanaugh’s chances of victory.
It’s also possible Kavanaugh wasn’t the only person in the Senate hearing room last week who would not wish to be judged by the literal truth of every word spoken.
I have no idea how Ford’s allegation was first leaked to the media, but I wonder whether Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was speaking the absolute literal truth when she said neither she nor her staff have any idea, either.
I wonder also whether Graham, fresh off his angry sermon about partisanship, would be ready to swear under oath that he would have no problem elevating a Democratic nominee to the Supreme Court who had denounced Republicans with the same vitriol that Kavanaugh aimed at Democrats.
Back in 1998, when prosecutors were drilling Clinton with questions about his affair, he uttered a line so classic that it later earned a spot in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations: “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”
To Clinton foes—no doubt to a younger Kavanaugh—it seemed the perfect example of the president’s smarmy evasions and moral relativism.
To me, in retrospect, it seemed Clinton was illuminating something authentic about his worldview. Only small questions—Do you live on Elm Street or Maple Avenue? Were you present at the party or not?—lend themselves to literal truth. Most large truths live in a realm of contingency: Clinton’s truths depended on context, on personal perspective, on who is asking and why.
It would be interesting to get Brett Kavanaugh’s perspective—under oath, ideally—on whether anything in his past two weeks has given him fresh sympathy for Bill Clinton.