Brett Kavanaugh’s Wall Street Journal op-ed in his own defense was a bizarre and grotesque milestone on the road to the complete delegitimization of the Supreme Court. But it was also part of a much larger disgraceful phenomenon, one that involves but transcends politics—a phenomenon built on hollowing out of the most essential and sacred human relations.
It is the thing where creeps try to get away with doing bad things by hiding behind their family.
Here is what Kavanaugh wrote as the opening of his apparently successful plea to be considered a proper and untainted candidate for the Supreme Court:
I was deeply honored to stand at the White House July 9 with my wife, Ashley, and my daughters, Margaret and Liza, to accept President Trump’s nomination to succeed my former boss and mentor, Justice Anthony Kennedy, on the Supreme Court. My mom, Martha—one of the first women to serve as a Maryland prosecutor and trial judge, and my inspiration to become a lawyer—sat in the audience with my dad, Ed.
Some facts about Brett Kavanaugh’s wife, Ashley, and his daughters, Margaret and Liza, and his mom, Martha, and his dad, Ed: none of them were at the party where Christine Blasey Ford says he pinned her down, covered her mouth, and tried to rape her. None of them were in the group of drunken Yale students on the scene when Deborah Ramirez says Kavanaugh shoved his penis at her face. None of them were around when Kavanaugh received emails of documents stolen from Senate Democrats.
Why drag them into it? For the same reason Kavanaugh followed up his tirade against Clinton conspiracies against him with this anecdote:
The other night, Ashley and my daughter Liza a said their prayers. Little Liza, all of 10 years old, said to Ashley, we should pray for the woman. That’s a lot of wisdom from a 10-year-old.
Christine Blasey Ford, in her own remarks the same day, mentioned her children once, without names or ages. Her only other references to family were about weighing the effects on them if she came forward, and about what those effects had been so far. She was there to talk about what had happened back in high school, and to try to convince the senators to believe her.
What Kavanaugh was doing, meanwhile, was using his sweet, guileless, prayer-saying 10-year-old child as cover against sexual assault charges. If you can’t sell your own innocence, offer up someone else’s.
No good person does a thing like this. We are supposed to understand that it’s dangerous to talk about how a person should act under accusation or questioning, and it is, human beings are complicated, but I can’t think of any innocent person who has thrown their family out there in this way. When you’re innocent, you want the world to understand your innocence. When you’re guilty, you want to change the subject.
The urtext here is the Checkers Speech, Richard Nixon’s career-saving TV address, in which the 1952 vice-presidential nominee dealt with the problem of his having maintained a private campaign slush fund by talking, at length, about his family background and his decent, hard-working parents and his devoted, thrifty wife and, finally, the most blameless creatures of all:
One other thing I probably should tell you, because if I don’t they’ll probably be saying this about me, too. We did get something, a gift, after the election. A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore, saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was? It was a little cocker spaniel dog, in a crate that he had sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, the six year old, named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.
Nixon was, of course, a crook. The dog lived and died, and eventually Nixon’s campaign-finance activities extended to paying for burglars and other acts of criminal conspiracy, and the rhetorical device lived on.
It’s not just for politicians. Journalistic fraud Jonah Lehrer, positioning himself for a speedy comeback, made sure to talk about how his downfall had affected his wife, and how he hoped to inspire his infant daughter. How did Salena Zito, harvester of deceptively cited or implausible pro-Trump quotations, respond to critics of her work?
“Dad, it’s not true,” I said, fighting to keep my voice steady through tears.
My 81-year-old father had just seen a Huffington Post headline — “Take Salena Zito Neither Seriously Nor Literally On Trump Voters” — with a picture of me next to it.
Salena Zito’s elderly father definitely didn’t talk to the strangers she got quotes from at gas stations. Did Zito herself? If she had, it would have made more sense to open with them.
President Trump himself mostly doesn’t resort to the maneuver; the most tender and vulnerable person he can imagine is Donald Trump, so he prefers to use self-pity. But when the New York Times reported that the president’s fortune, and his siblings’, had evidently been built on intergenerational tax fraud, his brother Robert dug up a pair of human shields to use in the family’s statement:
Our dear father, Fred C. Trump, passed away in June 1999. Our beloved mother, Mary Anne Trump, passed away in August 2000. All appropriate gift and estate tax returns were filed, and the required taxes were paid. Our father’s estate was closed in 2001 by both the Internal Revenue Service and the New York State tax authorities, and our mother’s estate was closed in 2004. Our family has no other comment on these matters that happened some 20 years ago, and would appreciate your respecting the privacy of our deceased parents, may God rest their souls.
Think of the imaginary feelings of the dead! Much better that than the paper trail of tax evasion they left behind.
The psychology here seems straightforward. When you can’t face the truth about what you’ve done, you retreat to your best idea of who you are: a dad or a mom, a son or a daughter, a pet owner, someone capable of loving or being loved.
When you present that to other people, though, what you’re doing is choosing to turn that best, most personal part of yourself into an instrument, to be used in whatever other realm you got in trouble in. It’s not a tool to save you from further disgrace; it’s the sign that your disgrace is complete.