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Opinion | Richard North Patterson

The telling role of character in the Ford-Kavanaugh controversy

Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington on Sept. 27.
Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington on Sept. 27.Jim Bourg/Pool/New York Times

The Christine Blasey Ford—Brett Kavanaugh confrontation was an unrelenting revelation of character — and as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously wrote, “Character is fate.”

This truth permeated a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee that partook of Greek tragedy: Ford, the reluctant witness forced to relive a long–ago trauma; Kavanaugh, his career at stake, facing allegations about youthful abuse of alcohol and women and burdened by his psychic debt to the right–wing judicial nexus that had nurtured his ambitions for a quarter-century. And though some analysts cast the denouement as inconclusive — another case of she said, he said — like many tragedies it became a merciless crucible for its principal players.

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Ford entered as a private citizen trapped in an excruciating public conflict. Her accusation was painful; her demeanor at times emotional, but always careful – and utterly believable. Two drunken teenagers had pushed a 15-year-old girl into a room. One, Brett Kavanaugh, had sexually assaulted her, covering her mouth to stifle cries for help so that it was difficult to breathe. The other, Mark Judge, had joined in laughter she would never forget.

How sure was she, a senator asked, that Kavanaugh was her assailant? “One hundred percent,” she answered – “the same way I’m sure I’m talking to you right now.” Conceding her credibility, Republican senators were reduced to suggesting, in feeble self-contradiction, that Ford must have been traumatized by someone, just not Kavanaugh.

In his naked self-revelation, Kavanaugh was riveting. His impassioned opening statement fused denials, tears, and anger with a visceral attack on Democrats that was evocative of right–wing talk radio:

“This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit. Fueled with apparent pent–up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election, fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record, revenge on behalf of the Clintons, and millions of dollars in money from outside, left-wing opposition groups.” Ominously, he warned: “What goes around comes around.”

Under questioning the measured if elusive jurist of his initial hearing became a Jekyll-Hyde political partisan bristling with entitlement, evasions, interruptions, aggression — and an unmediated rage so startling in a 53-year-old judge that he conjured the drunken, callous 17-year-old described by Dr. Ford. In a setting where self-control was imperative, Kavanaugh repeatedly revealed his reflexive belligerence.

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He yelled over Senator Dianne Feinstein. Asked by Senator Patrick Leahy if Judge should be called as a witness, Kavanaugh became accusatory. When Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Amy Klobuchar inquired about his drinking habits, he demanded to know theirs. Asked repeatedly to request an FBI investigation, he combined formulaic non-responses with an angry refusal to demand an inquiry that could help redeem his reputation — but which he, like Republican senators, was patently desperate to avoid.

To obscure this, his senatorial sponsors repeatedly accused unknown Democrats of leaking Ford’s charges in order to exploit her testimony. Maybe so. But that says nothing about the veracity and gravity of Ford’s allegations. Painfully aware of this, the Republicans sought to jam the nomination through while claiming, in telling circularity, that Ford’s account cannot be proven; that it should not be investigated; and that without corroborating evidence Kavanaugh must be confirmed at once. And so the nominee, in his own fear and ambition, clung to a naked power play that discredited him and degraded the Senate in order to reduce the Supreme Court to an instrument of Republican politics by other means.

Citing the damage to both institutions, the American Bar Association — which had pronounced Kavanaugh well-qualified — requested an FBI investigation prior to confirmation. Ignoring this, the Judiciary Committee pressed forward with its plan for a Friday vote.

More revelations of character followed. After initially stating that he would support the nominee, Republican committee member Jeff Flake was confronted on Friday by two victims of sexual assault. Clearly anguished, he consulted with the handful of undecided senators of both parties, then used his leverage to demand an investigation before a full Senate vote — forcing his Republican colleagues and Donald Trump to request a “limited” inquiry.

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Thus Flake passed this poisoned chalice to the remaining undecideds — Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Joe Manchin, and Heidi Heitkamp – testing their own political character. The FBI will investigate Ford’s charges as well as a second allegation of sexual misconduct.

There is a fair chance that the inquiry will be factually inconclusive on the central charge but confirm a pattern of heavy teenage drinking and other behaviors that expose the gulf between Kavanaugh’s anodyne self-portrait and reality and, therefore, his penchant for untruthfulness.

Already established is that Kavanaugh came to the hearing a bitter partisan lacking in judicial temperament — and likely left worse. The wavering Senators must decide if such a person should be on a Supreme Court already done such grievous damage by colleagues whose character is defined, and demeaned, by politics.


Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.