It’s the lying

Historian Claire Potter says it’s the lying at least as much as the sexual assaults.

The phrase “he said, she said” is often used to characterize the opaqueness of a sex crime: Without a direct witness, someone must be lying. But who? Is it equally likely that the accuser and the accused will lie? Conservatives don’t think so. Kavanaugh, as Thomas did, has categorically denied all charges, and his supporters have characterized Blasey as the agent of a smear campaign orchestrated to keep Kavanaugh off the court.

But Blasey’s story resonates with feminists and, in a change from 1991, with male Democratic senators — some of whom are former prosecutors shaped by the legal world that feminists made. Blasey’s supporters are strongly implying that Kavanaugh is lying and that Republicans are determined to keep Blasey — and possibly a second and a third accuser — from disproving these lies.

That so many people are focused on the question of lying instead of the underlying acts is the result of a fairly recent historical development. Lying has, of course, been a staple of American public life for centuries. But the exposure of lies, especially when those lies intersected with politicians’ dissolute private lives, became a staple of the new political journalism that emerged from the ashes of Watergate in 1974.

That’s what ended Gary Hart’s political career, she explains.

The destruction of Hart’s candidacy and the appetite of Americans for televised scandal set the stage for the Hill-Thomas hearings in a way that a decade of conversation about sexual harassment, a word that had entered the law in 1979, had not. And yet the question of whether Thomas had, as Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson put it, a “Rabelasian” sensibility that Hill was turning to political purposes was inseparable from whether he was lying about what had occurred.

Patterson speculated that Thomas probably had said and done the things that Hill had described — and that he had lied about it. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Patterson defended those alleged lies. “Judge Thomas was justified in denying making the remarks,” he wrote, “even if he had in fact made them, not only because the deliberate displacement of his remarks made them something else but on the utilitarian moral grounds that any admission would have immediately incurred a self-destructive and grossly unfair punishment.”

Grossly unfair? To be denied a seat on the Supreme Court he’d never deserved in the first place? Unfair to say a liar, which in this case meant also a perjurer, should not be on the Supreme Court? Let’s not forget why Bush nominated Thomas at all: it was because he felt it wouldn’t look too swell to put a white guy in Thurgood Marshall’s seat but he couldn’t find an outstanding Republican black guy so he had to go with a mediocre one. (There was of course no question of putting a woman in that seat, black or white – we already had the woman!)

In hindsight, it seems fairly clear that Thomas’s supporters — two of whom, Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), are still on the Judiciary Committee — knew that he had sexually harassed Anita Hill and other women. Journalist David Brock, who famously characterized Hill as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” during the hearings, later admitted that he had not only lied about Hill as part of a coordinated effort to protect Thomas but that he had helped Thomas to silence another potential accuser.

And Joe Biden also helped to silence the other potential accuser.

As the accusations against Kavanaugh pile up, it seems likely that some, if not all, Senate Republicans and President Trump, suspect — or even know — that Kavanaugh has done what his accusers say he has done. And it seems clear that many Republicans are embracing Patterson’s approach, arguing that even if Kavanaugh is lying about his dissolute youth, who can blame him given how disproportionate the punishment would be over a crime from decades ago?

Except not getting a very important public official job that’s all about law and truth and integrity is not a punishment. No doubt Kavanaugh would be very disappointed (as so many teenage girls were no doubt disappointed to find themselves being raped by classmates), but people are disappointed not to get jobs all the time. I see no reason at all to treat Kavanaugh’s potential disappointment as more important than anyone else’s, let alone as a “punishment” let alone a disproportionate one.

Republicans are still determined to push the Kavanaugh nomination through, despite the fact that a growing number of journalists and attorneys are dedicating themselves to finding evidence to support Blasey’s claims. The question is whether any potential victory will be worth the cost. Kavanaugh may end up on the Court, but he’ll be tainted and delegitimized in the eyes of millions of Americans. Is that how Brett Kavanaugh wants to go down in history?

Yes, it apparently is.

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