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The rise and the reckoning of Brett Kavanaugh

It’s a classic Washington tale of a young man who grew up surrounded by people in high places

Washington: He would be, in the words of his prep school’s motto, a man for others. At an age when most young people struggle to figure out their path forward, he knew he would devote his life to public service. Brett Kavanaugh was destined for something big.

The people around him knew it, too. Through the years, Kavanaugh, 53, a federal appellate judge since 2006, has been rich in friends, loyal and true. Teachers, parents, classmates, colleagues — they made it their business to buff and defend Kavanaugh’s reputation. They cheered him on as he climbed the ladder of legal success. And they rallied around him when he tripped on the way up.

That turned out to be a job that extended over four decades because as bright and kind and wise as friends say Kavanaugh is, he has also left behind a trail of people who say that his reckless behaviour raises serious questions about his judgement and veracity.

The story of President Donald Trump’s embattled choice for the Supreme Court is a classic Washington tale of a young man who grew up surrounded by people in high places, keenly aware of protecting his image. He told a girlfriend in college that he didn’t plan to buy stocks as an adult because he had to avoid conflicts if he wanted to follow in his mother’s footsteps as a judge.

The insularity of wealth

Kavanaugh’s story is also one of the power and insularity of wealth. He grew up in an idyll of country clubs and beach retreats, private schools and public prominence. The only child of a lobbyist and a judge, he had parents who pushed him hard, teachers who assured him that he faced no limits, and friends whose families knew the art of making problems go away quietly.

That Kavanaugh would achieve greatness seemed certain. Some of his classmates called him ‘The Genius’. They liked him because he was smart and fun. Women found him thoughtful and empathetic. Men said he was a guy’s guy — a walking encyclopedia of sports, a good pal, always up for a beer.

But again and again as he rose to the pinnacle of official Washington, Kavanaugh has given those charged with examining his life and character reason to pause and dig deeper.

This time, as he faces the Senate vote that will determine whether he will spend the rest of his working life at the apex of American democracy or in permanent disgrace, he is up against devastating allegations that he was a nasty, belligerent drinker who, according to his chief accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, pinned her to a bed and held his hand over her mouth when she tried to stop his sexual assault when they were in high school.

Once again, schoolmates, friends, family members and co-workers have rushed to his defence.

High-profile jobs

“After law school, Brett started on a path of high-profile jobs, and we were rooting for him all along,” said Tom Kane, a Georgetown Preparatory School classmate and friend. “Between 1998 and 2004, I lost my father, my mother and my sister, and he was always there for me. He has a fricking conscience and a soul unlike what people say.”

This story about Kavanaugh’s rise — and how his upbringing at the pinnacle of Washington’s political and social elite has helped protect him from his mis-steps — is based on dozens of interviews with friends, classmates, co-workers and mentors, including some who think he has been grievously wronged in the confirmation process and others who think he is unfit to serve.

When the American Bar Association first considered Kavanaugh’s nomination to a judgeship, the committee assigned to check him out ended up talking to more than twice as many lawyers and judges as many investigations required.

Some of those who spoke to the ABA in 2006 raised concerns about Kavanaugh’s lack of experience. Some warned about his temperament. He was “dissembled,” one lawyer said. He was described as “insulated,” “immovable,” “very stubborn and frustrating to deal with.”

Tight network

Kavanaugh pushed back, bolstered by his tight network. Supporters were always offering his name when sterling positions opened up, singing his praises to those making decisions about clerkships, law firm jobs, White House appointments and judgeships.

When it came time for Kavanaugh to marry after years of playing the field, it was the president of the United States who encouraged him to do so. Kavanaugh, like fellow Yale alumnus George W. Bush, settled down with a strong woman from a modest west Texas background. Bush, who held a sit-down dinner for the couple in the Rose Garden, called their marriage “the first lifetime appointment I arranged for Brett.”

Fourteen years later, Bush would get on the phone to rally senators to try to save Kavanaugh’s troubled nomination.

Now the judge faces the most severe test of what looks to outsiders like a charmed life.

This moment — an excruciating mix of careful inquiry into his legal opinions and voracious inspection of his adolescent behaviour, all taking place amid a searing national struggle involving truth, trust, political polarisation and sexual mores — has left Kavanaugh’s community deeply, perhaps irrevocably, divided.

Some have fixed on hazy but painful recollections of ugly nights in the 1980s — a bar fight, groping attempts to get somewhere with women, perhaps worse. Others slot those same stories into memories of a debauched but too-common scene of cloistered young men learning how far was too far, even as they prepared to run the world.

No one who hung out with Kavanaugh during Beach Week on the Delaware shore or at Demery’s bar in New Haven, Connecticut, knew their partying would become the stuff of congressional debates and national polls, or that the president would conclude that their friend “did have difficulty as a young man with drink.”

Any definitive version of what happened between Kavanaugh and Ford 36 years ago seems lost to the vagaries of memory.

More than most people, by virtue of where and how he grew up, Kavanaugh knew he would someday be called to account for himself. He did not, however, expect to be asked to answer for the ways and mores of the place and time that shaped him, as he has described the current inquiry to friends.

Yet here he is, in a humiliatingly intimate and public job interview that has turned into a historic reckoning, for Kavanaugh and for his country.

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