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Against the ‘Choir Boy’ Straw Man

Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, September 4, 2018. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

This morning we have seen the arrival into the Kavanaugh Saga of a giant straw man: namely, that Brett Kavanaugh told Martha McCallum that he was a sober, dull “choir boy” in high school and college, and that this claim demonstrates that he is a liar. Along with the Washington Post, Paul Krugman has jumped on this bandwagon, proposing that “Kavanaugh has lost all credibility by portraying his young self as a ‘choir boy.’” “If Kavanaugh were now saying ‘Yes, I drank and partied hard, but I didn’t do that’ it would be different,” Krugman writes. “But he’s claiming to have been a strait-laced, sober young man — which we know he wasn’t. Credibility gone.”

But Kavanaugh claimed no such thing. Indeed, in his interview with Martha McCallum, Kavanaugh said precisely what Krugman suggests that he should have said. At no point did Kavanaugh say he didn’t go to parties; on the contrary, he said he did. At no point did he say he didn’t drink, or even have “too many” drinks; on the contrary, he said he did. And at no point did he say he has no regrets; on the contrary, he says he does. Rather, he said that he never got blackout drunk, and that he never committed sexual assault — two very specific claims that are in no way interchangeable with the ones that Krugman and co. are pretending he declined to make.

At two points in the interview, Kavanaugh painted a picture of himself as a good guy. But — and this is important — he did so in response to the charge that he ran a gang-rape club while in school. Moreover, he then adds onto his defense the acknowledgement that he went to parties, and drank, and did “things we look back on in high school and regret or cringe a bit,” all while insisting that this has nothing to do with the allegation in question, which is of sexual assault. Look at the transcript:

MACCALLUM: Michael Avenatti says that he has significant evidence and another accuser, who claims that you and Mark Judge, at multiple house parties in the Washington, D.C., area during the 1980s, would participate in the targeting of women with alcohol and drugs to allow a train of men to subsequently gang-rape them.

There are multiple witnesses that will corroborate these facts, and each of them must be called to testify publicly. Did you ever participate in or where you ever aware of any gang-rape that happened at a party that you attended?

KAVANAUGH: That’s totally false and outrageous. I’ve never done any such thing, known about any such thing. When I was in high school — and I went to an all-boys Catholic high school, a Jesuit high school, where I was focused on academics and athletics, going to church every Sunday at Little Flower, working on my service projects, and friendship, friendship with my fellow classmates and friendship with girls from the local all-girls Catholic schools.

And yes, there were parties. And the drinking age was 18, and yes, the seniors were legal and had beer there. And yes, people might have had too many beers on occasion and people generally in high school — I think all of us have probably done things we look back on in high school and regret or cringe a bit, but that’s not what we’re talking about.

We’re talking about an allegation of sexual assault. I’ve never sexually assaulted anyone. I did not have sexual intercourse or anything close to sexual intercourse in high school or for many years there after. And the girls from the schools I went to and I were friends —

Later in the interview, Kavanaugh was explicitly pressed on his drinking — which, in itself, shows that the interviewer in no way understood him to be saying “I didn’t drink” — and confirmed that there was never “a time that [he] drank so much that [he] couldn’t remember what happened the night before.” This, of course, is a wholly different claim from “I didn’t drink.” It’s a wholly different claim from “I was sober,” as Krugman implies. And it’s a wholly different claim from “I was a choir boy.”

It’s also a wholly different claim from “I never passed out.” A few people have come forward this morning to say that they remember Kavanaugh drinking to excess. Some have even said that they “saw” him “blacked out.” But this is nonsense. You can’t “see” someone “blackout drunk.” As any doctor will tell you, the word “blackout” means something specific. To have a “blackout” is to experience amnesia brought about by substance abuse. Which, as it happens, is exactly what McCallum asked him about:

MACCALLUM: Sir, you are going to be pressed on something that you just said about people do things in high school, and you were all drinking, were there times when perhaps you drank so much — was there ever a time that you drank so much that you couldn’t remember what happened the night before?

KAVANAUGH: No, that never happened.

MACCALLUM: You never said to anyone, “I don’t remember anything about last night.”

KAVANAUGH: No, that did not happen.

Because he is the only person who knows what he remembers and what he doesn’t, the only person who can know whether Kavanaugh’s answer is true is Kavanaugh. As such, his answer is not exculpatory. But, by the same token, we should ignore the testimony of anyone who claims to have “seen” him “blackout drunk” or, as an alternative, to have seen him “passed out” (not least because if someone is “passed out,” they are incapable of committing sexual assault).

There is a second moment in the interview during which Kavanaugh portrays himself as a good, wholesome guy. And, as with the first, it is in response to being asked whether he is a gang rapist:

MACCALLUM: Did you ever have any sense that any kind of — the description of the behavior that I just described with these women being taken into rooms and raped or having sex with a number of men consensual or otherwise that that was going on at the parties that you were at?

KAVANAUGH: I never saw any such thing, any such thing. I certainly never participated in any such thing — but I never saw or heard of any such thing. And we were — I was focused on trying to be number one in my class and being captain of the varsity basketball team and doing my service projects, going to church.

The vast majority of the time I spent in high school was studying or focused on sports and being a good friend to the boys and the girls that I was friends with. We have these great, life-long friendships that are fantastic, and supporting each other through the ups and downs of life, and, you know, they’re an awesome group of people.

Everyone is different. But if I were asked on television whether I’d been into gang rape when I was 17, I think I’d have answered almost exactly as Kavanaugh did. “No,” I would have said. “That’s ridiculous. I was a nice guy with a bunch of non-gang-rape interests. Sure, I drank, and occasionally did awkward things I regret. But that’s irrelevant. I wasn’t a sexual predator, and it’s not possible that I was one but have forgotten it.”

This is getting silly.

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