Kavanaugh’s Youth Was Bad Enough. His Career Was Even Worse


The worst consequence of the allegations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh may not be the partisan attempts in Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to obfuscate the search for truth.Even more worrisome has been the media’s apparent indifference to what Kavanaugh and millions of former “frat boys” have done since they “grew up.” Some reformed their youthful ways and became “responsible” men of the world. But for Kavanaugh, the youthful indiscretions signaled in his own high school yearbook were a prelude to even more destructive behavior.

Yale students’ arrogance, debauchery, braggadocio and sexual exploitations have been condemned since the 1740s, when many of them brutally hazed one another, undertook off-campus exploits with women, and were regarded by the college’s president, Thomas Clapp, as born sinful, redeemable only by strict religious instruction, introspection, and the grace of the Holy Spirit.

The repercussions of such a regimen were so predictable for some students that, more than a century later, Herman Melville characterized his own unmoored, youthful life at sea by writing in Moby Dick that,  “A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”

The schools of aggressive young whales resembled “a mob of young collegians … full of fight, fun, and wickedness, tumbling around the world at such a reckless, rollicking rate, that no prudent underwriter would insure them any more than he would a riotous lad at Yale or Harvard,” Melville wrote. “They soon relinquish this turbulence though, and when about three-fourths grown, break up and separately go about in quest of settlements.”

That last sentence suggests a truth we’ve been missing: What young hellions do after they “settle down” is sometimes just as destructive as what they did before—all the more so if they become as sanctimonious and self-righteous as Kavanaugh was at Thursday’s hearing.

Long after Yale abandoned President Clapp’s efforts to reconcile religious and classical truth-seeking with capitalist wealth-making, the university, and others like it, kept on producing what the Yale alumnus and former Harper’s Magazine editor Lewis Lapham calls “a ministerial elite, still pious and orthodox, but secular in spirit and corporate by inclination.”

He also noted that “the social order founded first on the Protestant church and then on the pillars of commerce had given way to a managerial elite loyal to nothing other than its own ambition” and “the arts and sciences of career management.”

He might as well have been writing not only about Brett Kavanaugh, but also George W. Bush, who lived four entryways down from me when we were both undergraduates at Yale in the late 1960s. In 2004, when Bush was running for re-election against John Kerry, another Yale undergrad from our time, I found a sports-action photo in my Yale yearbook with a caption that said, “George Bush delivers illegal, but gratifying right hook to opposing ball carrier.”

The game being depicted was only intramural rugby, and the caption writer’s assessment wasn’t political, but in 2004, it helped me to understand why Bush wasn’t sliding in the polls, even though his recently-nominated opponent had served bravely in Vietnam, as Bush hadn’t. Bush owed a lot to the “bad boy” vote of millions of Americans. His ascendancy told them that you can mess up, but still stagger off the field with an impish grin.

Bush’s reckless youth—and eventual reformation—is well-known. Even if his bad-boy days at age 18 are excusable—or, depending on what actually happened, forgivable—what’s not forgivable is dishonestly leading the United States into one of its worst foreign-policy blunders.

Equally unforgivable is working indefatigably to impeach a wayward president, as Kavanaugh did with Ken Starr, and then sparing another, even-more wayward president–the one who has nominated him for the Supreme Court–which he may well do if he’s confirmed.

Kavanaugh’s dishonesty was evident when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2006, during his nomination by President Bush to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. He claimed, erroneously, that as Bush’s associate White House counsel from 2001 to 2003, and then as his staff secretary, he hadn’t known about, or participated in discussions of, the administration torturing inmates at Guantanamo Bay.

In fact, as Amy Davidson Sorkin reported in The New Yorker, he had taken part in a contentious White House meeting in 2002 about the administration’s detention policies, because, as a former clerk to Justice Anthony Kennedy, he knew a lot about Kennedy’s preferences regarding detainees’ legal hearings and representation.

Bush and Kavanaugh each insist that they’ve changed since their rollicking college days—Kavanaugh contends that he wasn’t even really bad—but I doubt that the difference matters much to the bad boys they’ve left behind, including the classmates who’ve supported them. (In Kavanaugh’s case, they’ve actually refused to tell the truth about his behavior in high school and college.) If Bush showed his admirers how to behave grossly but smirk your way out of it, Kavanaugh seems determined to show us how to bull your way out of it with only a “prayer-breakfast” simulacrum of contrition.

I’m not being partisan here. This truly is a “guy” thing. Recall the thunderous welcome Bill Clinton got from a huge crowd of college boys at the University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign campus on Jan. 28, 1998, only days after rumors of his Monica Lewinsky affair surfaced. Just 24 hours earlier, 120 million Americans had watched Clinton pull off a triumphal, almost defiant, State of the Union address. “Yeah, B-i-i-i-i-lll!” the boys roared lustily as he entered the hall to a booming rendition of “Carry On My Wayward Son” by the rock band Kansas.

Whoever wrote that caption under Bush’s rugby photo must have understood. But none of us should understand how anyone can act like perpetuating the Iraq War, or withholding documentation of and lying about one’s service in George W. Bush’s administration, is no worse than an “illegal right hook” in rugby or a “100 keg” bender.

The larger, even harder lesson here is that we should stop letting latter-day revelations about youthful sexual abuses—outrageous, destructive, and criminal though some of them may be—obscure more recent abuses by the same people who have corrupted democratic deliberation, destroyed countless lives, and set precedents for demagogic governance that cannot be defended except by more demagoguery and increasingly brutal coercion.

Too many former frat boys have prepared such precedents by ignoring awkward truths, sometimes deceiving even themselves in their self-righteous piety. The rest of us shouldn’t be so unknowing.

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale. He is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism.

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