The tactical coup achieved by Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake in gaining a one-week reprieve in the Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Judge Brett Kavanaugh assures more than the FBI investigation into the sexual allegation against him.
It also shines a comparable light on Kavanaugh’s own ability to serve with the sort of judicial temperament generally required from justices on the highest court. His angry and aggressive self-defense last week put in question his own ability to be dispassionate and even-handed in hearing cases from that most august judicial bench.
As the FBI conducts its crash inquiry into Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation that Kavanaugh criminally assaulted her at a teenage drinking party decades ago, this question of temperament will be widely and heatedly raised and debated.
It’s inevitable, in light of his startling transformation from his earlier benign demeanor in the hearing, in which he offered himself, as one critical Democratic senator put it, as “a choir boy” of placid and benign manner.
Virtually overnight, the confirmation process was broadened from to a simple she-said-he-said dispute over personal credibility in the disputatious incident itself. Now, a burning question for many watchers has become whether Kavanaugh, though a product of elite preparatory and Ivy League education, is truly suited for the Supreme Court.
In the face of the certainly hostile and accusatory attacks on him from Democrats on the Judicial Committee and beyond, Kavanaugh offered politically self-inflected harangues dripping with invective. His outbursts left him wide open to scorn and ridicule that must have appalled his most supportive listeners.
His reaction revealed not only a remarkably thin skin for anyone so long in public life, but also a tin ear to self-defeating discourse in the public and political square.
Kavanaugh seemed clueless to the negative ramifications of his words and sometimes sneering and snarling demeanor, even to the point of challenging mild-mannered Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar on her own drinking habits.
The judge rather bizarrely picked up on questions about his reported heavy drinking of beer at such teenage parties, including how much he liked beer and still likes it, certainly no barrier to judicial duties at any court level.
But when Sen. Klobuchar inquired whether he had ever imbibed to the point of blacking out and not remembering events thereafter, the nominee in denial turned on her, asking her whether she had ever blacked after drinking.
Momentarily taken aback, she reminded him that she was the one asking the questions, without stating the obvious that she was not the one seeking a Supreme Court seat. That jolting moment was part of a distinctly intemperate recitation of Kavanaugh’s view of the hearings as a bitterly partisan assault.
He pointedly called it “a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2018 election. Fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record, revenge on behalf of the Clintons, and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.”
The latter tirade against Hillary and Bill Clinton and “left-wing” critics was a particularly jarring pivot for a seasoned jurist into personal and ideological realms, putting his own judicial temperament in the worst possible light for his own best political interest.
The observation no doubt was red meat to the angry Trump conservative base. But to others who have been viewing the allegations against Kavanaugh with open minds, his bitter outburst offered a jarring irrelevance and evidence of a man unglued from his own usual reserve.
Much may now depend on whether the FBI brings more fact than furor to the whole disturbing fiasco. The country can only hope more clarity will emerge to the critical question of who has been telling the truth.
For that at least, Flake’s intervention deserves commendation, if only to reassure American women and the #MeToo movement that they have been heard, and not dismissed out of hand by the U.S. Senate.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at [email protected]