Thursday, September 27, 2018

How Your Mispent Youth Matters

It seems that I was at Yale with Brett Kavanaugh. We never met, so far as I can recall, presumably because I never went to drunken parties and he never played Dungeons & Dragons. From what I have read in the news, he seems to have been the worst sort of entitled prep school brat, a sort of person I met far too many of in those days and uniformly despised.

Does it matter? I think it does, but not in the sense that drunken rowdiness at 17 or 21 disqualifies anyone from higher office.

Consider, as comparison, Kweisi Mfume. Mfume, born in 1948, grew up poor in Baltimore and had repeated scrapes with the law. He has never admitted to any serious crimes, but there have long been rumors in Baltimore that he was a full-on gang-banger who committed a series of assaults and robberies. At the age of 23, according to his autobiography, he decided he wanted more from life. He got his GED, enrolled in community college, ended up graduating magna cum laude from an all-black state college. He also got involved in politics, serving as the president of the black student union in community college and so on. He was a Baltimore councilman, President of the NAACP, five-term Congressman.

I would not say that anything Mfume did before he turned his life around should have disqualified him from any of this later achievements.

On the other hand, voters would have been foolish not to take note. The kind of man Mfume is, and the kind of political leader he has been, have very much followed from his rough youth. He has never been "tough on crime;" he has never been accused of being "pro-police." He is from what we now call the Black Lives Matter wing of the Democratic Party, intensely suspicious of the Establishment in all its forms. Those who voted for Mfume should have known all this and absorbed it.

Which brings me back to Brett Kavanaugh. I care not a fig what he did in high school; I am, as I just said, willing to forgive almost any youthful crime in a person whose life has really turned around. I  believe in forgiveness and redemption. I believe that we need to reward people who have changed. I once wrote on this blog about Chuck Colson, a former Nixon hatchet man who found God in a deep sense and remade himself into the champion of prison ministries; many liberals never forgave him or offered him anything but scorn, but I think what he did with the second half of his life is worth our appreciation.

If I thought Brett Kavanaugh were going to be a great Supreme Court Justice I might support him. But I would never say that these stories of his youth do not matter, because to me they seem to reveal very much about his character, and I see no evidence that his character has changed. Out of law school he clerked for Judge Alex Kozinski, who was already notorious for sexual escapades, but recently has denied under oath ever knowing about Kozinkski's behavior, which is a bald-faced lie if I ever heard one. His first major job was working for Ken Starr's anti-Clinton inquisition, a perfect slot for a win-at-all-costs bad boy. He then went to work for the Bush campaign and was one of the "operatives" (their word) sent to Florida to litigate and otherwise fight out the recount. His reward for completing that assignment was a slot on Bush's White House staff, where he worked on judicial appointments and approvals. In 2003 Bush appointed him to the DC Appeals Court, but his nomination was held up for three years by Democratic Senators who said he was just a partisan hack. On the bench he has been one of the most conservative judges in America, especially in matters involving corporations; he has filed half a dozen dissents against decisions holding corporations responsible for their actions, from pollution to human rights abuses in foreign countries. He is also a notable fan of presidential power, ruling again and again against any limits on the President.

Kavanaugh remains, so far as I can tell, an entitled brat with nothing but scorn for the weak and unsuccessful. To me, his life seems a perfect whole from aggressive drunken sexuality to aggressive defense of Presidential power. As a judge he will pour scorn on all efforts to help the poor and disenfranchised, because he feels for them only contempt.

That, to me, is how his past matters.


Unknown said...

I see how his past matters to you, and to many others, and I would say you make a persuasive case for looking at things in terms of overall character and philosophy. However, I think it is worth pointing out that in practice specific crimes with undeniable proof really matter. I say this because you're reminding me of the Nixon impeachment hearings. Some, mostly Democrats, wanted to impeach Nixon on his very clear pattern of scorn for the law and legal procedure. And some went so far as to say that all the specific evidence and specific questions were just window dressing around the overall. But as things happened, it was actually the smoking gun tape, that bald, undeniable evidence of a very particular crime, that sank him. Without that, he might very well have survived an impeachment vote in the Senate. In political society at large, really concrete, specific things like that matter.

John said...

You may be right; on the other hand I am not sure things like the Nixon tape matter as much now as they did then. I also wonder if any particular crime would have sunk Nixon if he had not been such a rat. Reagan survived Iran-Contra.

Unknown said...

Yes, it's true that Nixon being a rat led to a long siege that slowly eroded his position. Without that siege, yeah, the tape might not, probably wouldn't have mattered so much. On the other hand, the smoking gun tape was finally necessary to push a lot of Republicans over the top. I suppose the point is that, to overcome partisanship, you need an ultimately obvious, bald, undeniable fact or two.

I wonder if Iran-Contra isn't a different sort of animal. As far as I can tell, its origin lay in policy differences more than personal morality or ambition for office.

deborah said...

The behaviors described by the women who, at great sacrifice, have come forward, are far more than “drunken rowdiness”.
Please consider whether you would describe them as such if it were your daughter.

Unknown said...


At the risk of being a jerk, I will say that the events of the last day have confirmed me in my original point. Kavanaugh's bad associations and character stereotype have been very effectively painted, but they weren't enough to get his nomination withdrawn or to persuade any Republican senators to vote against him. I respect Flake and his cabal for wanting more evidence.

I liked Ross Douthat's most recent column on this--he wants to know what happened, insofar as this is possible, and he listed a number of specific witnesses he would like to hear from (including the now-famous Mark Judge).


Again at the risk of being a jerk, I will say that the sacrifice, courage, and trauma suffered by a victim are not in themselves dispositive. I'm a liberal who would love to see Kavanaugh's nomination tank, and I find him personally both unconvincing and repugnant. But the idea that the accuser can somehow earn a conviction (or in this case, the equivalent of a conviction) just because they've shown courage or character or trauma, or because we want to protect people like them (our daughters) with no other evidence, sounds like the kind of argument that has historically been used to do a lot of injustice, including when the accused has been female.