R ECKONIN G THE RISE AND THE Inside Brett Kavanaugh’s circles of influence
Now the judge faces the most severe test of what looks to outsiders like a charmed life.
This moment — an excruciating mix of careful inquiry into his legal opinions and voracious inspection of his adolescent behaviour, all taking place amid a searing national struggle involving truth, trust, political polarisation and sexual mores — has left Kavanaugh’s community deeply, perhaps irrevocably, divided.
Some have fixed on hazy but painful recollections of ugly nights in the 1980s. Others slot those same stories into memories of a debauched but too-common scene of cloistered young men learning how far was too far, even as they prepared to run the world.
No one who hung out with Kavanaugh during Beach Week on the Delaware shore or at Demery’s bar in New Haven, Connecticut, knew their partying would become the stuff of congressional debates and national polls, or that the President would conclude that their friend “did have difficulty as a young man with drink”.
More than most people, by virtue of where and how he grew up, Kavanaugh knew he would someday be called to account for himself. He did not, however, expect to be asked to answer for the ways and mores of the place and time that shaped him, as he has described the current inquiry to friends. Yet here he is, in a humiliatingly intimate and public job interview that has turned into a historic reckoning, for Kavanaugh and for his country.
There are so many automatic advantages that come from attending the 229-year-old Georgetown Prep, set back from a busy road in North Bethesda, Maryland, on a verdant campus larger and more stately than those of most universities.
There is the intimacy of small classes and the lesson drummed in by Jesuits at the Catholic school that the boys are expected to excel and to serve. There is the continuing pride in singlesex education, the unfashionable idea that wisdom and power are unlocked by channelling adolescent energy into studies.
The boys, in the 1980s perhaps even more than in decades before and after, believed that their hard work bought them enough slack that they could get away with hard partying.
“We did everything to the max,” said one of Kavanaugh’s classmates, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because, as he put it, “Brett doesn’t want us putting ourselves out there right now.”
Many of the boys at Prep came from families accustomed to gaining and holding influence. Kavanaugh’s father, Edward Kavanaugh, was president of what was then the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, the kind of Washington job in which building connections to powerful people justified the US$4.57 million in compensation he earned in 2005, according to tax returns. His mother, Martha Kavanaugh, was a prosecutor who became a circuit judge in Montgomery County, Maryland.
Perhaps the greatest privilege the boys gained at Prep was one another. Some graduates came to view the school as a troubled, morally questionable symbol of a snobby elite; others cherish the place as a foundry for men of character and achievement.
But most bonded over the idea that they were the elect who owed one another a permanent duty.
Since Kavanaugh was nominated, members of the class — some from his inner circle, some who’d never been close — have created a support network that has fended off reporters, offered guidance to favoured journalists and batted down false rumours, all with frequent consultation with their former schoolmate.
They had done this before. Judge, a good friend of Kavanaugh’s in high school, became a freelance writer and in his books, which include two memoirs, he described an alcoholsaturated adolescence. A central character in Judge’s account was named “Bart O’Kavanaugh”. Kavanaugh was nicknamed Bart in high school. Years before his Supreme Court nomination, Kavanaugh’s supporters pressed Judge to limit or mask his revelations of bad behaviour, Prep classmates said. At Prep, as at almost every stage of his life, the impressions people formed of Kavanaugh were consistently inconsistent. Kavanaugh and other football players were at the center of Prep’s social universe. Matt Brown, a classmate who was decidedly not part of the in crowd, remembered Kavanaugh standing out among the popular boys because he was so nice.
Many football players let their gridiron celebrity “get to their heads and they wouldn’t really interact with you”, said Brown, now an alcohol and drug counsellor in Portland, Maine. Not Kavanaugh: “He was a guy who would still talk to you in the hallways and would acknowledge your existence.”
Classmate William Fishburne recalled Kavanaugh as an academic standout, a popular jock. But he also recalled a different side of Kavanaugh. Fishburne was short and heard more than his share of short jokes on campus. He was also a star in high school debate, and he said Kavanaugh “liked to call me a master debater”, but he’d say it in such a way that others heard “masturbator”.
“The whole group there did not treat me well,” Fishburne said. “Brett was a jerk.”
At Yale College and Yale Law School, as at Prep, there are classmates who say Kavanaugh was a big drinker who became nasty and belligerent when he got drunk and classmates who say he drank heavily but never seemed out of control. The two portraits seem irreconcilable, yet both could be true.
“Brett was a sloppy drunk, and I know because I drank with him,” said Elizabeth Swisher, a friend who is now a professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “He’d end up slurring his words, stumbling . . . It’s not credible for him to say that he has had no memory lapses in the nights that he drank to excess.”
But Chris Dudley, a close friend who played basketball at Yale and later in the National Basketball Association, painted an opposite picture. “Brett drank and I drank. Did he get inebriated sometimes? Yes. Did I? Yes. Just like every other college kid in America.”
Just as there are women who say Kavanaugh was clumsy or rough when he made drunken passes at them, there are women who say he was charmingly awkward and reticent in such moments.
Even as classmates remain divided over his behaviour when drinking, they agree he was a consistent conservative on a liberal campus. As a first-year law student in 1987, Kavanaugh aligned himself with Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a conservative who moved the Supreme Court to the right. Kavanaugh soon joined the
Federalist Society, a Washington, DC-based group that has played a key role in recruiting, grooming and supporting strongly conservative judges — including Kavanaugh. In the years to come, he would appear nearly 50 times before Federalist Society audiences on campuses and at gatherings of lawyers.
As Kavanaugh became active in the society’s Yale chapter, Leonard Leo got involved with the group at Cornell. The two soon formed a bond that would prove powerfully important. Both men were originalists, subscribers to the idea that the Constitution and statutes should be interpreted by their original meaning and text.
In Washington, Leo, who emerged as a leader of the Federalist Society, became the keeper of a list of influential conservative judges from which Republican presidents have chosen court nominees. Leo was also, as ever, one of Kavanaugh’s most avid boosters.
After law school, Kavanaugh clerked for two federal judges, lining himself up for a coveted clerkship at the Supreme Court. But before Justice Anthony Kennedy hired him, Kavanaugh caught the eye of another prominent conservative who would prove to be a vital mentor.
Like Kavanaugh, Ken Starr was a staunch conservative who would be accused of excessive partisanship in a job that required a fair and neutral temperament. But what drew Starr, an independent counsel appointed to investigate allegations against President Bill Clinton in 1994, to hire Kavanaugh three times was the same mix of attributes that had attracted so many people before him: He considered the young lawyer an unusually likable guy who was brilliant and closely aligned with Starr’s philosophy.
In 1992, when Starr was US solicitor general, the federal government’s lawyer in the Supreme Court, he interviewed Kavanaugh and hired him as a fellow in his office.
From there, Starr lent a hand as Kavanaugh sought the Kennedy clerkship.
Starr kept a close eye on his protege and a few years later recruited him to join the independent counsel’s office, first to investigate the death of White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster and later, after Kavanaugh had left the office, to come back and lay out the reasons the President should be impeached for lying about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Kavanaugh’s next assignment was to write a section of the report to Congress laying out the grounds for impeaching the President.
“This was not a man on a mission, this was a legal document of great potential moment that needed to be very carefully crafted, so I was looking to one of the office’s most talented lawyers,” Starr said in an interview last summer.
The bond between Kavanaugh and Starr was mutual. Starr had been bitter about being passed over by President George H.W. Bush for a Supreme Court nomination, but when he heard that Trump had nominated his protege for the high court, Starr said it brought “tears to my eyes. Tears of joy”.
Kavanaugh’s rise was swift and deliberate. At every step, his friends pitched in. Starr, Leo and others recommended him, spread the word, helped knock down critics.
In 2003, when Alberto Gonzales, then the attorney general, advanced Kavanaugh’s name to the White House for nomination as a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, it was Kyle Sampson, Gonzales’ chief of staff, who initially recommended the move.
“I thought — correctly! — that Brett would make a great judge, given his A+ level smarts, collegial demeanor, commitment to public service, compassion,” Sampson said in an email. The chain of connections was echt-Washington: Kavanaugh and Sampson had worked together on the nomination of another judge, John Bates, and Kavanaugh and Bates had worked together in the independent counsel’s office.
“I went and made the case to Judge Gonzales,” Sampson said, “and then Gonzales made the case to President Bush and he agreed.”
When the American Bar Association knocked down its rating of Kavanaugh from “well qualified” to merely “qualified,” and Democrats blocked his nomination to the DC Circuit, his friends rallied once more. More than two years after he was first chosen, he won a spot on the bench by a nearly party-line vote in the Senate.
On the bench, Kavanaugh extended his network. Other judges began to cite his rulings frequently. He is among the top appellate judges nationally to send his law clerks on to clerkships in the chambers of Supreme Court justices.
Last week, on the day before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about the allegations against him, Kavanaugh spent hours behind closed doors in his courthouse office, writing an angry, emotional defence of who he is.
He struggled to deliver the speech even in practice runs, according to a person familiar with the sessions.
His opening remarks were searing, partisan and accusatory; his delivery, by turns outraged, weepy and righteous.
When Democrat Senator Amy Klobuchar questioned Kavanaugh, the judge initially came across as courteous and diplomatic. But when she asked whether he had ever blacked out after a night of heavy drinking, Kavanaugh pounced with his own question.
“I don’t know,” he snapped. “Have you?”
During breaks in his testimony, Kavanaugh regularly huddled with White House counsel Donald McGahn and other advisers in a small meeting space behind the hearing room.
But after the heated exchange with Klobuchar, Kavanaugh took a moment by himself. His people were out there in the hearing room. But now, with everything on the line, he was on his own. Just before the hearing resumed, he told his advisers he wanted to apologise to the senator, according to a person familiar with the discussion.
“Sorry I did that,” he told Klobuchar when the hearing resumed. “This is a tough process.”
That night, Kavanaugh, emotionally spent, his future very much up in the air, retreated to safe ground. He spent the evening with those who would understand, those who had been there at every step, including, of course, his buddies from Prep.
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in before the Senate Judiciary Committee.