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Supreme partisanship

Ms Marcus's book is impressively reported, highly insightful and a rollicking good read. It also adds another dispiriting data point that the American Republic is seriously ailing

Adam Cohen | NYT 


Supreme Ambition and the Conservative Takeover | Ruth Marcus | Simon & Schuster; $28; 482 pages

had a confirmation hearing like none other, because of the extraordinary testimony of one woman. Christine Blasey Ford, a psychology professor, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her at a high school party decades earlier. “Brett got on top of me,” she said, and “began running his hands over my body and grinding his hips into me.” He groped her, she said, and tried to take her clothes off. When she yelled, she said, he put his hand over her mouth. “It was hard for me to breathe,” she said, “and I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me.”

Ms Blasey Ford’s testimony was precise, measured and credible. Even many of Kavanaugh’s supporters thought it sounded the death knell for his nomination. “Almost all of us were saying, ‘It’s over,’” recalled Jeff Flake, then a senator from Arizona.

It was not over, of course, and today Mr Kavanaugh sits on the highest court in the land. How he overcame Blasey Ford’s testimony — and allegations of sexual misconduct from other witnesses — is the subject of Supreme Ambition, by Ruth Marcus, a deputy editor of The Washington Post’s editorial page.

Ms Marcus’s book is impressively reported, highly insightful and a rollicking good read. It also adds another dispiriting data point that the American Republic is seriously ailing.

Mr Kavanaugh was in many ways a perfect Republican nominee for the court. An only child from a Catholic family in suburban Maryland, he was the son of a lobbyist father and a prosecutor mother. He attended Yale College and Law School, and clerked for two Republican appeals court judges and then for Justice Anthony Kennedy. He worked for Kenneth Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton; helped in the Florida recount that brought George W. Bush to power in 2000; served in the Bush White House; and finally became a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Along the way, Mr Kavanaugh married Ashley Estes, a young Texan who was President Bush’s personal secretary — which helped place him in the Bush inner circle

There was, however, a dark strand running through Mr Kavanaugh’s life of calculated achievement: heavy drinking. In his high school yearbook, he made a reference to “100 Kegs or Bust,” and in college, his interests included the annual Tang competition, an elaborate intramural beer-drinking relay race. Law school classmates have said little about his intellectual pursuits, but one recalled, “If you had asked me who was the biggest drinker in our class I would have said Brett.”

As a judge on the D.C. Circuit, a traditional farm team for Supreme Court justices, Mr Kavanaugh became a leading candidate for the court — and he pursued the prize aggressively. There was one advocate whose opinion counted most of all — Justice Kennedy, whose seat Mr Kavanaugh ended up filling. Supreme Ambition has made news with its report that, when he presided over Justice Neil Gorsuch’s swearing in at the White House in 2017, Justice Kennedy requested a private meeting with President Trump to promote Kavanaugh for the court. If Justice Kennedy did argue for his former law clerk, it was a disturbing intervention across the lines separating the judicial and executive branches — but also a successful one.

After Ms Blasey Ford, other witnesses emerged. Deborah Ramirez, a college classmate, told reporters that Mr Kavanaugh thrust his penis in her face at a party, although she had significant memory lapses. Another late-arriving witness, the Washington lawyer Max Stier, remembered seeing Mr Kavanaugh in college exposing himself to a different woman, lending possible further credence to Ms Ramirez’s account.

The most interesting part of Ms Marcus’s narrative is her discussion of why, in the end, the evidence mattered so little. Much of the credit goes to Mr Kavanaugh, whose own Senate testimony was as effective, in its way, as Ms Blasey Ford’s was. Kavanaugh’s proclamations about liking beer were widely. But his angry insistence that he was the true victim — which took a page from Clarence Thomas’s response to Anita Hill’s sexual harassment charges decades earlier — shifted the momentum in his direction.

Mr Kavanaugh also had strong allies in his corner. The White House counsel Don McGahn kept the FBI on a short leash, and its decision not to interview Mr Stier — an “inexcusable lapse,” as Ms Marcus notes — helped prevent a stronger case from being built against Mr Kavanaugh.

His confirmation has profound implications for the court. If he turns out to be significantly more conservative than Justice Kennedy, he could provide the fifth vote to end abortion rights or affirmative action. His arrival also means that two of the nine justices joined the court despite credible charges of serious misconduct toward women — which has done incalculable damage to the court’s reputation.

There was something even more profound at stake: whether, on the most important questions, our nation is capable of putting the public interest ahead of partisanship, and whether the truth matters. The week before this book’s publication date, President Trump told his 67 million Twitter followers that “the Ruth Marcus book is a badly written & researched disaster. So many incorrect facts. Fake News, just like the @washington post!” It would be hard to imagine a more persuasive endorsement.

©2019 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Sun, December 08 2019. 23:26 IST