New York Times journalists Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly have published the results of their nearly year-long investigation into Brett Kavanaugh and the allegations against him by Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez in The Education of Brett Kavanaugh. The authors interviewed many friends and acquaintances of Kavanaugh, Ford and Ramirez, compiling the record and turning up some unreported evidence.
I had hoped that The Education of Brett Kavanaugh would be like Strange Justice, Jane Mayer’s and Jill Abramson’s 1994 outstanding investigation of the Clarence Thomas hearings. It wasn’t.
After a 274-page journalistic description of the allegations, stating they had “seen no evidence of Ford fabricating stories,” and uncovering at least five Yale classmates of Ramirez who had heard about the incident she alleges “long before Kavanaugh was a federal judge,” Pogrebin and Kelly nevertheless conclude in a brief and forgiving epilogue that “Ford and Ramirez were mistreated by Kavanaugh as a teenager, and that Kavanaugh over the next thirty-five years became a better person.”
Aside from the highly questionable characterization of sexual assault and attempted rape as “mistreatment,” Pogrebin and Kelly downplay Kavanaugh’s dishonesty about his binge drinking in high school and college during his 2018 Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, and his appalling treatment of the women Senators, especially Senator Amy Klobuchar.
Kavanaugh’s classmates at Georgetown Prep and Yale have said that Kavanaugh drank heavily, and that Kavanaugh and his Georgetown friends had a “100 Keg Club,” vowing to drink one hundred kegs of beer before they graduated. His best friend Mark Judge even wrote a book about their exploits, Wasted: Tales of a Gen X Drunk. Kavanaugh threatened to sue Judge if he used his name, so Judge referred to him as “Bart O’Kavanaugh.”
One Yale friend, Charles Ludington, said, “I can unequivocally say that in denying the possibility that he ever blacked out from drinking, and in downplaying the degree and frequency of his drinking, Brett has not told the truth.” His drinking sometimes led to violence. In 1985 as a junior at Yale, Kavanaugh was involved in a bar fight, according to a New Haven Police Department report. Ludington said that Kavanaugh threw his beer at another patron in the bar.
Kavanaugh’s drunken misbehavior continued into law school, when, as a summer associate at the law firm Covington & Burling, Kavanaugh showed up to a firm event with a paralegal and then left “drunkenly carrying the paralegal down the front staircase” and then “fell down on the sidewalk.”
And then there were the lies he told the Senate Committee about the misogynist references in his high school yearbook, such as his claims that “Renate Alumnus,” “boofing” and “the Devil’s Triangle” had nothing to do with sex. Kavanaugh’s Georgetown Prep classmates contradicted the innocent spin he put on the crude yearbook references.
His Georgetown Prep classmates also spoke about the misogyny of Kavanaugh and his friends. One classmate described a “collective sort of jocular disdain for women,” at Georgetown Prep. “We all thought it was sort of a funny thing to do, or be, which was to be disrespectful toward women.”
Pogrebin and Kelly reveal how Kavanaugh repeatedly boasted of his efforts to conceal his past behavior. At a 2015 speech at Columbus School of Law at Catholic University of America, he said, “We had a good saying that we’ve held firm to this day, which is ‘What happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep.’ That’s been a good thing for all of us.” Well, not so good for Christine Blasey Ford.
He made a similar boast at Yale Law School in 2014 when he was giving a talk to students of the Federalist Society.
Pogrebin and Kelly document a longstanding pattern of Kavanaugh attempting to cover up his bad behavior. After a 2001 reunion of his law school friends, Kavanaugh wrote an email to them saying “Reminders to everyone to be very, very vigilant w/r/t confidentiality > on all issues and all fronts, including with spouses.”
Just before the Ramirez story appeared in the New Yorker, Kavanaugh asked at least one friend, David Todd, not to say anything negative about his behavior at Yale, according to an NBC report. In addition to turning up at least five people with a “strong recollection of hearing about the alleged incident with Ramirez long before Kavanaugh was a federal judge,” Pogrebin and Kelly also describe an allegation of sexual abuse very similar to that of Ramirez but involving a different female student (it was reported to the FBI, but not in the media). Yale classmate Max Stier told the FBI that during a drunken dorm party in his freshman year, Kavanaugh pulled his pants down while friends “pushed his penis into the hand of a female student.” The female student declined to be interviewed for the book and friends say she does not recall the episode—although the authors admit “at least one other Yale student remembered hearing that Harmon [the female student] had transferred out of Stiles residential college at Yale because of Kavanaugh, though exactly why was unclear.”
Reading The Education of Brett Kavanaugh was hard for me because it brought back the memories of my high school and college years in the 1980s. Like Pogrebin, I too was in Brett Kavanaugh’s class at Yale. I remember the DKE (“Deek”) guys (Kavanaugh’s fraternity)—“infamous for drunkenness and misogyny.” When you saw them coming, you crossed to the other side of the street. They were often loud and drunk, flailing around and out of control. They were dangerous.
But guys like this, in my experience, often exhibited a Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde personality: they could be really nice to you one on one, but then in groups they would become cruel and abusive. They would target the most vulnerable—teasing disabled students, or assaulting younger girls and women of color, like Kavanaugh’s treatment of Blasey Ford and Ramirez—and yell sexual taunts at girls entering the cafeteria. They reeked of a sense of entitlement and callousness, as well as alcohol.
Unfortunately, Pogrebin and Kelly bend over backwards to be fair to Kavanaugh, at the expense of fairness to Ford and Ramirez. While they describe Kavanaugh in glowing terms, referencing his “diligence and ambition” and his “intellectual curiosity,” they describe Ford as “bright but aimless,” and “running with a cliquish crowd of about 15 girls.” They do not give Ramirez’s explanation the weight it deserves, given the number of people who reported remembering the incident.
They also suggest that Ford is dishonest in their discussion of a lengthy interview they did with Leland Keyser, the high school friend Ford identified as being with her at the party the night she was assaulted. Pogrebin and Kelly detail Keyser’s doubts about Ford’s account without explaining to readers up front the unreliability of Keyser as a source. According to Blasey Ford’s attorney, Debra Katz, Keyser is a thoroughly discredited source:
“It is unconscionable that Pogrebin and Kelly chose to give so much airtime to Leland Keyser, knowing that she has changed her story so many times,” Katz told Ms. “They know that she has a problem with addiction for decades, that she has been in and out of rehabilitation facilities, and for that reason has had serious problems with her memory. To elevate her in this manner as a way to make the story more dramatic and to sell more books is just unconscionable.”
Only in the epilogue do Pogrebin and Kelly tell readers that Keyser’s skepticism of Ford’s story is based on “erroneous or irrelevant” information. But sure enough, the right wing has zeroed in on the authors’ passage about this unreliable source and run with it. Conservative commentator Kathleen Parker, for example, used this passage in a Washington Post op-ed to argue that “Leland Keyser was the true hero of the Kavanaugh saga.”
Pogrebin and Kelly also seem to endorse what others have called the “blackout theory” for Kavanaugh: that he blacked out during the assault, or maybe he “blanked on it because it had registered with him at the time as harmless—and therefore forgettable—horsing around.” They don’t hold him accountable for his dishonesty and sense of entitlement that manifested in his temper tantrum before the Senate Judiciary Committee—like a toddler crying and screaming because a parent took away his toy (spoofed hilariously on Saturday Night Live by Matt Damon).
And what if Kavanaugh had been able to complete the alleged attack against Christine Blasey Ford and she had ended up pregnant? The Kavanaugh of today would deny her an abortion. In October of 2017, as a federal judge on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, he argued in Garza v. Hargan for blocking an undocumented seventeen-year-old girl in federal custody from accessing abortion health care.
Kavanaugh has now joined Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, both men credibly accused of serious sexual harassment and assault. And these are the men who will be making decisions about women’s bodily integrity and rights to be free from violence.