If the looming high-stakes showdown between Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the woman accusing him and a friend of a drunken high school sexual assault in the 1980s — psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford — wasn't actually happening in our warped high-def reality show that we call life in 21st-century America, Hollywood would have created it.
The issues that hinge on whether the Senate confirms Kavanaugh to sit on the nation's highest court for the next 30 or so years — corporate power, voting rights, women's reproductive rights — are huge, and yet the nationally televised showdown now slated for Monday (although things are changing by the hour) may swamp all of them in a tsunami of metaphor.
The irresistible force of the #MeToo movement colliding with the entrenched deny-everything-admit-nothing "bro culture" of Donald Trump's Washington. A "Battle of the Sexes" for a new era, serving as a kind of a historical bookend to the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas showdown of 1991 that began to elevate the debate over sexual harassment in the workplace to the higher plain where it now sits. A confrontation between a mildly Trump-resisting California surfer mom and the privileged Washington judge that many will boil down to this: Who is telling the truth?
That dramatic spin is understandable, but it's also what worries me about how such a pivotal week for the future of America is going to play out. The temptation will be to frame Monday's hearing as the trial of Brett Kavanaugh — a kind of quasi-legal hearing in which all of the massive, messy weight of America's political divide presses on Ford to somehow prove her story beyond a reasonable doubt.
And if this biased jury — stacked heavily with men of a certain age — decides that Kavanaugh or his allies can cast even the smallest shadow of doubt on Ford's story, this 53-year-old hardball political operative by way of his all-male elite prep school and beer-chugging Yale fraternity will become the 114th justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
I believe Ford. Her story — that a drunken 17-year Kavanaugh and his friend dragged her into a bedroom during a party, turned up the music, and held her down while Kavanaugh covered her mouth so she couldn't scream as they groped her and tried to take off her clothes before she escaped — has many of the hallmarks of a real-life traumatic event, and not a political fabrication. Contemporaneous notes show she told her marriage counselor about it in 2012 and shared details with a friend during the #MeToo explosion of 2017, all long before the Supreme Court fight. Ford volunteered to take a lie-detector test and passed it. She loses so much by doing this — getting her name and her reputation dragged through the mud by everyone from Twitter bots to the cretinous lowlifes who run the Wall Street Journal editorial page — and only gains the solace that comes from telling the truth.
But while faith in Ford's story is shared by many of us, we need to be clear-eyed — that it's unlikely that her account from the early 1980s will come with enough evidence that would ever convict Kavanaugh of a crime in an American court. When the judge testifies Monday — almost certainly with the deny-deny-deny strategy that has well-served the president who appointed him, coupled with some righteous indignation to echo Thomas' infamous line about "a high-tech lynching" — Republican senators will try to cling to some variation of "not proven," not even because they like Kavanaugh but they're so close to their goal of a conservative, pro-business high court for generations to come.
But this isn't a trial, and seeing it as such would be a huge mistake. The senators we've tasked with deciding whether Kavanaugh belongs on the Supreme Court aren't a jury. They're a political body, making a decision that's informed by our political and moral values. In a nation of 320 million people and thousands of distinguished judges and attorneys, has Kavanaugh displayed not just the legal brilliance but the integrity and gravitas that merit a promotion to become one of just nine Americans to sit on our highest court?
We've already seen enough of Kavanaugh to answer that question beyond a reasonable doubt.
He does not.
Whatever happened that night 35 years ago, Kavanaugh has shown us nothing to suggest that he's changed very much from the young man who soaked himself in a toxic male environment that flowered at Yale (where he joined a hard-drinking all-male club called Truth and Courage but was known (apologies for the relevant language) as "Tits and Clit" that in the words of a classmate "was organized around getting coeds into bed"), who bragged about his hard-drinking law-school exploits in a speech to the right-wing Federalist Society and who even in his 30s was still apologizing to his friends for not even remembering lashing out in anger during a late-night dice game.
That's the kind of warped mind-set that leads to a judge seeking to deny a 17-year migrant in government custody her right to an abortion (controlling the body of a 17-year-old? … how ironic) and it's the kind of mind-set that has made so many women so fearful that a Justice Kavanaugh would be the deciding vote to strip them of their reproductive rights.
Is there really a seat on the esteemed bench inhabited by the likes of Louis Brandeis, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Earl Warren, Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O'Connor, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg for a man whose ascension has been based largely not on legal scholarship but on political hackery — his willingness to traffic in the lowest forms of political dirt-slinging to bring down a Democratic president, his work to sway the 2000 Florida recount, and his willingness to justify torture and other unlawful or immoral acts by the George W. Bush administration?
On Monday, Kavanaugh is going to ask America to believe him. But why should we believe Kavanaugh when his Republican allies have gone to such unprecedented lengths to cover up his paper trail and to shield his true record from the American public? Why should we believe him when he refuses to explain glaring discrepancies in his personal finances? More important, why should America believe Kavanaugh when there's already mounting evidence that he has misled senators and arguably lied under oath about his past actions — both in his 2006 confirmation for the federal appeals court and again in his Supreme Court hearing this month.
His go-to strategy for almost everything has been to deny, deflect, and cover up. That might win you a "not guilty" verdict in a felony trial. It's not the type of behavior that should win you a lifetime elevation to the Supremes.
In making the right political decision on Kavanaugh, senators have an opportunity to show they understand this unique moment. In the great awakening that has been the #MeToo movement, millions of American women have listened to Christine Ford's story and realize that this is their untold story as well. The Senate has a chance to show these women and their allies that their stories matter, and that we are now engaged in a quest for what can imperfectly be seen as justice. For that matter, they have a chance to address the hypocrisy in which 17-year-old kids who come from the wrong neighborhoods get locked up for years — maybe life — for a youthful mistake, while rich kids who went to the right elite prep schools and colleges get unlimited second chances.
If history is any guide, there's a good chance that senators will grab onto this American moment — and fumble it away. But in 2018 they have a chance to get it right. When Kavanaugh speaks on Monday, listen not only to what he says but how he says it.
The question isn't just what he did as a teenager but whether he's learned anything important in the years since then. Has Brett Kavanaugh matured, developed a sense of empathy and an understanding of what Americans who weren't born with his type of privileges have to deal with? Or has he only learned to do whatever it takes to get ahead to the next rung of the ladder. The ultimate question for Monday and beyond is not "he said, she said" but whether Kavanaugh is really the best we can do for one of the 10 most important jobs in the country. And the answer is out there, hiding in plain sight. America can do so much better than this.