Brett Kavanaugh has thrived in a culture that embraces sexual harassment

Judge Brett Kavanaugh (right) meets Sen. Chuck Grassley. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser now has a name and a harrowing story to tell. Over the next few days, we can expect an avalanche of news stories and cable talk about Christine Blasey Ford and whether her allegations are enough to topple the Kavanaugh nomination.

But there’s a broader context to all of this, and journalists would be negligent if they fail to explore it. Simply put, Kavanaugh has been in close proximity to, and in some cases has benefited from, a culture of sexual harassment and assault his entire life.

The best known example is Kavanaugh’s work for the grand inquisitor himself, Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel who exposed Bill Clinton’s sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Both then and now, the focus has been on Clinton’s sleazy, exploitative behavior. But his affair with Lewinsky was nobody’s business until Starr concocted a bizarre legal theory that it would shed light on Paula Jones’ sexual-harassment lawsuit against Clinton — thus dragging a secret sexual relationship into the public sphere and transforming it into a perjury trap for Clinton.

Kavanaugh was a full participant in what amounted to an unforgivable assault on Lewinsky’s character. You may have heard that Kavanaugh drafted a series of questions that the president would be required to answer under oath. The questions say much about what was rattling around in Kavanaugh’s mind. Here is one of them: “If Monica Lewinsky says that you ejaculated into her mouth on two occasions in the Oval Office area, would she be lying?”

Clinton may have been the subject of the investigation, but Lewinsky suffered the most. To this day she is an object of pity and derision, despite her admirable attempts to speak out and reclaim her life. Many years later Starr, in what was surely one of the most satisfying ironies of our time, resigned in disgrace from the presidency of Baylor University for covering upinstances of sexual assault involving the school’s football team.

If Kavanaugh’s assault on Monica Lewinsky was his most notorious brush with sexual harassment, it was by no means the only one. Earlier this year Kavanaugh said he had no knowledge of dirty jokes and naked pictures of women that appeals court judge Alex Kozinski shared with his law clerks. Kavanaugh was among those clerks, and was apparently one of Kozinski’s favorites, as the mentor introduced the mentee to the Senate in 2006 when Kavanaugh was nominated for an appeals court judgeship.

“Kozinski’s sexual comments — to both men and women — were legendary,” wrote another ex-Kozinski clerk, Heidi Bond, at Slate. “When I first arrived in chambers, the outgoing clerks suggested that we should watch ‘The Aristocrats,’ a documentary about a notorious dirty joke, to prepare ourselves for the upcoming year. Kozinski’s email list had hundreds of participants, and some of the jokes he shared were incredibly off-color.” Yet Kavanaugh, when asked about the matter, replied: “I do not remember any such comments.”

His reputation in ruins, Kozinski retired. Kavanaugh, as he had following the Starr investigation, skated away.

There is more. Kavanaugh’s opposition to abortion rights is not necessarily related to his toleration of sexual harassment, of course. But some of his actions stand out. Despite Kavanaugh’s denial, White House records show that he was involved in the nomination of Judge William Pryor of Arkansas to an appeals court position. Pryor is a notorious culture warrior, calling Roe v. Wade an “abomination” and harshly criticizing homosexuality. As an appeals court judge himself, Kavanaugh ruled against a 17-year-old undocumented immigrant’s request for an abortion, a decision that one of his colleagues called “unconstitutional” and “wrong.”

We are already hearing that Kavanaugh’s actions as a minor should not be held against him all these years later, regardless of how reprehensible they were and regardless of the lasting harm that Christine Ford said was done to her psyche. Surely there is something to the idea that the actions of an adult should be taken more seriously than those of a minor. There’s a line to be drawn, even if you might draw it in a different place than I would.

But consider that, just a few years after his alleged assault on Ford, he joined a secret club at Yale called Truth and Courage that was devoted to heavy drinking and was “organized around having sex with coeds,” according to Kristin Sherry, an alum who was interviewed by BuzzFeed News.

Or consider that Kavanaugh is on the verge of joining the Supreme Court thanks to the patronage of President Trump, who has bragged about sexually assaulting women — boasts that have been corroborated.

In the days and weeks immediately following Kavanaugh’s nomination, the mainstream consensus was that he was a fine fellow, but gosh, he’s awfully conservative. The sheen has worn off. There is a coherent story to be told about Brett Kavanaugh, and it is ugly — the story of a child of privilege whose rise has been constructed, in part, on the degradation of women. Are the media capable of telling that story? We’ll see.

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