Dogged by an accusation of a sexual assault in high school and pressed to defend his character, Brett Kavanaugh went on Fox News with a curious strategy. Instead of owning up to his high school drinking habits, he told what appear to be lies.
Kavanaugh insinuated that he never drank when he was underage, saying on Fox that when he was a senior, the “drinking age was 18, and yes, the seniors were legal and had beer there.”
Not only is this not true with regard to the legal drinking age in Maryland at the time, it’s also extremely hard to square with the portrait he otherwise paints of himself as a hard-partying kid. Thirty-five years ago he seemed to have joked in his yearbook about being the treasurer of the Keg City Club, and in 2015 he quipped that “what happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep.”
Obviously if we disqualified people from high office for having engaged in underage drinking or some youthful drunken antics, we’d have a very hard time staffing the government. The mere fact that Kavanaugh drank to excess in high school is not relevant to whether he is fit to serve on the Supreme Court. And it certainly doesn’t prove that he sexually assaulted anyone.
But it does factor into the question at the heart of this saga: Should we take Kavanaugh’s word or that of his accusers? Kavanaugh has consistently had trouble being honest with both Congress and the public. That he would choose to say things that aren’t true, yet again, just makes it harder to trust any of his claims.
In the context of a friendly Fox News interview, he knew perfectly well that he wouldn’t be pressed hard on this or any other contradiction. By lying about his drinking, he managed to present an image as an all-around Boy Scout directly to his party’s base, including evangelical Christians, whom he needs to get his confirmation jammed through.
But to any observer with evidence from outside the Fox News bubble, he simply seems like a liar.
Kavanaugh’s dubious account of his high school drinking
The key exchange came after the interviewer, Martha MacCallum, asked Kavanaugh about unsubstantiated insinuations from lawyer Michael Avenatti that Kavanaugh might have been present at parties where women were gang-raped:
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.
One big problem here is that Kavanaugh turned 18 in February 1983 and Maryland raised its drinking age to 21 back in July 1982. What he is perhaps misremembering is that the District of Columbia had a lower drinking age of 18 through the mid-1980s, so it was common at the time for high school seniors from the Maryland suburbs to buy beer legally in the District.
Anyone who has ever attended a party in high school or college at which alcohol was served is going to be rightly skeptical of the claim that Kavanaugh routinely attended house parties where underage drinking was banned. But his basic claim about the legal drinking age at the time is also provably false, a small fact that he probably neglected amid the larger implausibility of the overall argument.
Meanwhile, a very large volume of available evidence strongly suggests that Kavanaugh was a fairly serious partier at this point in his life.
External evidence paints a picture of a hard-partying Kavanaugh
It seems fundamentally silly to be obsessing over a Supreme Court nominee’s yearbook. But Kavanaugh’s confirmation has come to hang in the balance over sexual assault charges that are necessarily hard to prove one way or another. In that view, questions about his present-day credibility are necessarily central.
Kind of wild to think that a Supreme Court confirmation could turn on what the nominee wrote in his high school yearbook.— Josiah Neeley (@jneeley78) September 25, 2018
While there’s no clear documentary evidence of his relationships with women at the time, there is clear documentary evidence about his drinking habits in the form of his yearbook entry.
here's brett's yearbook entry again pic.twitter.com/5dMSV2EtMr— Tim Dickinson (@7im) September 24, 2018
The references to the Keg City Club and “100 Kegs or Bust” are very clear indications that Kavanaugh was a devoted beer drinker — as is the fact that he was the biggest contributor to the Beach Week Ralph Club.
“Malibu Fan Club” also appears to be a reference to a brand of rum that’s perennially popular with younger drinkers (it’s at least conceivable that he’s just a big fan of either the Southern California town or the Chevrolet model of the same name). More ambiguously, “boofing,” the Rehoboth police (of a beach town where “ralph”-ing might have happened), and the “FFFFFFFourth of July” all seem like references to rowdy partying.
Indeed, at a slightly earlier period in his career, Kavanaugh seemed to deliberately cultivate an image of having been a hard partier in high school.
Speaking to Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law in 2015, he noted the presence of three Georgetown Prep graduates in the audience and said “Fortunately we’ve had a good saying that we’ve held firm to this day, as the dean was reminding me before the talk, which is, ‘What happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep.’ That’s been a good thing for all of us, I think.”
Later, at Yale, Kavanaugh joined both the fraternity DKE and a secret society (you’ve probably heard of Skull and Bones, but Yale has a bunch of others) called Truth and Courage, both of which were known for their partying.
Kavanaugh’s drinking is unusually well-documented
To be clear, it’s not particularly unusual for high school students to be involved in drunken partying, and federal data on binge drinking indicates that it was significantly more common when Kavanaugh was in school.
But Kavanaugh’s drinking is unusually well-documented. A friend and classmate of his named Mark Judge actually wrote a book titled Wasted: Tales of a GenX Drunk that appears to discuss it.
As CNN has reported, Judge’s book reveals the story behind the 100-keg joke on the yearbook page. What happened, according to Judge, was that students were dismayed to learn that they would be required to spend their senior Sundays doing community service.
“‘We have to do something,’ I said. ‘They can’t get away with this our senior year.’
‘What are we going to do?’ Shane said, laughing. ‘Drink a hundred kegs and brag about it?’
No one laughed. For a second, no one even spoke. ‘It’s brilliant,’ I said.”
Judge and his high school buddies went on to create a newspaper called the Heretic, a riff on their school newspaper the Saint. One of the main objectives of the paper, as laid out by Judge in the book, was to chronicle “the 100-keg quest and everything that happened on the way.”
According to his book, Judge and his friends continued to publish and anonymously distribute the paper on campus, with a continued emphasis on the 100-keg quest in the pages. Judge wrote that by March of his senior year, the keg count was “into the mid-eighties.”
The book also discussed a lightly disguised person named Bart O’Kavanaugh who puked in someone’s car and passed out on the way back from a party.
Drinking to excess is unhealthy and sets the stage for potentially illegal activity, including unsafe driving and violence. However, it’s hardly unforgivable and certainly not proof that Kavanaugh committed any of the serious offenses against women that have been charged. The disparity between Kavanaugh’s statements about his high school activities and the apparent facts, however, does raise a serious question about his honesty.
Kavanaugh simply does not seem to be an honest person
As someone who was certainly a contributor to his own high school ralph club, I’m not in a position to hold Kavanaugh’s partying lifestyle against him.
But what a person chooses to say about past events of which there is clear documentary evidence tells you something about his overall level of honesty and forthrightness.
- In his introductory remarks to the American people, Kavanaugh lauded President Donald Trump’s “appreciation for the vital role of the American judiciary.”
- In 2004 congressional testimony, Kavanaugh claimed that he was not involved in handling William Pryor’s nomination for a federal judgeship.
- He also claimed at that time not to have had any knowledge of Democratic staff emails stolen by Manuel Miranda, a Republican counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, in the early 2000s.
Documents produced later as part of his Supreme Court confirmation hearings made it clear that Kavanaugh had, in fact, been involved with the Pryor nomination and had corresponded extensively with Miranda about the contents of the staff emails. In both cases it doesn’t rise to the level of legal perjury because there are ways to parse his answers as narrowly truthful.
Similarly, despite Trump’s blatant disrespect for the independence of the judiciary and his stated view that judges should be disqualified from cases on the basis of ethnicity, Kavanaugh could always maintain that he simply meant that Trump appreciates that judicial nominations are important.
What’s happening here is that Kavanaugh is being misleading when he thinks he can get away with it and then retreating to narrow technicalities under pressure. Even facing a softball question from Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) about whether he ever got in trouble in high school, Kavanaugh at first dodges, saying he was focused on sports, academics, and friendship, before allowing that the “friendship” heading may have encompassed some illicit activities.
WATCH: Complete exchange complete between @SenJohnKennedy & Judge Brett #Kavanaugh on high school. Senator Kennedy asks: "Did you ever get in trouble? Were you more of John Boy Walton type or a Ferris Bueller type?" pic.twitter.com/1BaM5LiDvI— CSPAN (@cspan) September 17, 2018
There’s no doubt that if he’s put back under oath and subjected to more specific questioning about his high school, he’ll give answers that pass legal muster. And conservatives will try to paint a picture of liberals engaging in ridiculous fussiness about decades-old parties and trying to spike a Supreme Court nomination over teen drinking.
The issue, however, is not perjury or partying, but honesty and integrity.
Kavanaugh has, time and again, chosen at high-pressure moments to offer misleading accounts to the public. The misleading about drinking happens to be unusually clear-cut rather than unusually significant.
But the fact that he is so willing to be misleading even when the evidence is clear-cut should make us suspicious about his slipperiness around slightly more ambiguous cases, like Miranda’s pilfered emails. Indeed, his general lack of probity is probably disqualifying on its own and certainly provides ample reason for senators to prefer a different, ideologically identical nominee.
But his statements also provide a critical reason to believe that in a he-said, she-said matchup between Kavanaugh and Christine Blassey Ford — a matchup that Kavanaugh has agreed to rather than having the FBI investigate or the Senate take testimony from other witnesses — we should be inclined to believe Ford and to disbelieve Kavanaugh.