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In their new book, “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh,” New York Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly detail their investigation into the Supreme Court Justice and the allegations of sexual misconduct made against him.
It was a year ago now that Christine Blasey Ford alleged Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her at a house party in Montgomery County more than 30 years ago, when both were students at local prep schools.
While her account had national implications for Kavanaugh’s congressional confirmation hearing, Blasey Ford’s story prompted local Washingtonians, particularly those who attended private schools, to look at their own pasts.
We hear what authors Kelly and Pogrebin uncovered in their investigation and take a look at the past and present of consent culture at local private schools.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Robin Pogrebin Culture Reporter, New York Times
- Kate Kelly Wall Street Reporter, New York Times
KOJO NNAMDIIn their new book, "The Education of Brett Kavanaugh," New York Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly detail their investigation into the Supreme Court Justice and the allegations made against him. It was at this time last year that Christine Blasey Ford alleged Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her at a house party in Montgomery County more than 30 years ago, when both were students at local private schools.
KOJO NNAMDIJoining me in studio now is Robin Pogrebin. She's a reporter on the New York Times Culture Desk. She attended Yale College in 1987, at the same time as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Robin Pogrebin, thank you very much for joining us.
ROBIN POGREBINThank you.
NNAMDIAnd Kate Kelly is a reporter for the New York Times, who covers Wall Street. She attended the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C. Kate Kelly, thank you for joining us.
KATE KELLYThank you.
NNAMDISo, what did these two journalists uncover in their investigation into Kavanaugh's past and his alleged misconduct? Both are authors of "The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation" published last month. This is a deeply reported account of the events leading up to Kavanaugh's confirmation hearing last September. Before we get into the finer details, why did you feel the need to write this book?
POGREBINI think we both ended -- we were both part of the original team at the New York Times that was investigating the hearings when they were unfolding last year, and were left with a feeling that, I think, was shared by much of the country, that there was kind of unfinished business. That there were a lot of threads left hanging that we wanted to follow in terms of who the people were in this very dramatic story that kind of convulsed the country, as well as an FBI investigation that left many people feeling unsatisfied, because it was so brief and so circumscribed. So, there was just a feeling that these events were worth returning to and exploring in greater depth.
NNAMDIWell, let's start right here at Washington, D.C., Kate. What did you learn about Kavanaugh's drinking, first in high school?
KELLYI learned that if you go back to Georgetown Prep and probably any of the local private schools from the early '80s, you find a very heavy drinking culture. I myself went through National Cathedral School not until 10 years later, but even then, this sort of group of schools and kids were known for un-chaperoned parties. Parents would go away for the weekend, and then kids would host something at their house with alcohol flowing freely.
KELLYIn Kavanaugh's class, he and his group of friends put together something they jokingly referred to as the 100 Keg Club. You can see references to it in their 1983 yearbook. And this was a desire to complete the drinking of 100 kegs during their senior year, which is quite a lot of alcohol, when you think about it. And this was something where the parents probably weren't paying close enough attention, in some cases.
KELLYEven in the fall of Kavanaugh's senior year, the Georgetown Prep School paper ran an article written by one of his friends on the football team, talking about how parties were huge. They were hundreds of people. There was a fear they were getting out of control. There were fears about drinking and driving, other kids crashing, you know, various injuries possibly occurring. And the Montgomery County Police and the Board of Trustees there were stepping into kind of have dialogue with the school community about what could be done.
NNAMDIRobin, what about the drinking culture at Yale?
POGREBINAt Yale, I mean, I think it's important to say that, you know, people drink in high school, people drink in college. That endures even to this day. Why this issue became relevant was that during the hearings there were questions about whether Kavanaugh was truthful about his drinking history. And so that is why this became sort of an important area of inquiry at the time, for senators on the Judiciary Committee as well as for us and with our book.
POGREBINAnd, at Yale, Brett was -- I call him Brett because I sort of remember him that way, but Justice Kavanaugh now -- was part of a circle of kind of jock-y guys. He was an athlete himself coming out of high school. He didn't make the basketball varsity team at Yale, but he did play junior varsity and pick-up games. And he hung out with basketball players and football players who frankly somewhat stood out in the culture of Yale, which was somewhat heavily academic a place in terms of the prevailing culture, and an artsy place. He also belonged to DKE, which is a fraternity that was somewhat notorious for its kind of misogynistic behavior and demonstrative drinking.
NNAMDIKate, how would you describe the consent culture at private schools during the '80s when Kavanaugh was a student?
KELLYThe consent culture, that's a good question. So, there were certainly boys that dated, you know, girls from the other schools that they knew of in that class. And, you know, some were sexually active, although -- just purely anecdotally speaking in the reporting of this book -- it sounds like many were not. I was not aware, when I was coming through high school -- and, again, this is 10 years later -- of the sexual assault that seems now to have certainly occurred. There's been much more conversation about this since the Me Too movement began, and certainly since the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh.
KELLYSo, I know now that this was more widespread than when I was coming through in the early '90s. But, at the time, where was not a lot of talk about it. And, again, through my reporting, I've sensed that there was even less of it in the early '80s. Many of the alumni I spoke to for this book who were in Kavanaugh's class or a class above, a class below and, in any case, near contemporaries of his said, you know, we weren't aware of assault. Nobody talked about it in that way.
KELLYThere was, in the words of one alumnus, a sense of sort of casual misogyny, a disparagement of girls, oftentimes along sexual lines. And you could see that in the yearbook. You could see that in the underground newspaper that existed at that time at that school. But, actually, many of these now-men feel that there was, in their heart of heart, a good respect for women and moms and sisters that they all had, and were quite surprised to hear that there would've been sexual assault going on and lack of consent.
NNAMDIWe're talking with the coauthors of the book "The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation," published last month." They are both reporters for the New York Times, Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly. Robin, you paint a detailed picture of Christine Blasey Ford, who, at the time of her alleged assault, was just Christine Blasey. What can you tell us about her and about that night?
POGREBINYou know, I should defer to Kate on this...
POGREBIN...because we kind of divided things up, and I had Debra Ramirez, who was the accuser from college.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Oh, we'll get to that soon. Let's go to Kate.
POGREBINSo, let's take it away, Kate.
KELLYSo, Dr. Ford, then Christine Blasey, was a little bit younger than Brett Kavanaugh. She attended Holton-Arms School, which was another all-girls school kind of in the broader network. My school was NCS, so different schools, but ran in the same kind of groups.
KELLYYes, that's right. And, you know, she was a bright, young student. She was a cheerleader. She really liked Kafka and “The Odyssey.” And she liked anthropology and had a number of interests in school, although wasn't at all sure kind of what she wanted to be when she grew up. She fell into the idea of becoming a psychologist a few years later. She was part of the in-crowd, if you will, a group of some 15 girls that were pretty close. And, you know, they liked to go out and socialize and go to some of these un-chaperoned parties, no doubt. And she was known as sort of a bright, bubbly kid who was well liked and had a sense of humor.
NNAMDIChristine Blasey Ford's testimony brought the nation to a standstill last September. Here she is describing the night of her alleged assault.
CHRISTINE BLASEY FORDI was pushed onto the bed, and Brett got on top of me. He began running his hands over my body and grinding into me. I believed he was going to rape me. I tried to yell for help. When I did, Brett put his hand over my mouth to stop me from yelling. This is what terrified me the most and has had the most lasting impact on my life. It was hard for me to breath, and I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me.
NNAMDIWhat were some of the more eye-opening discoveries you made, Kate?
KELLYOne thing that Robin and I both found fascinating and informative for the book was the notion of memory and what happens in a typical case of sexual assault. It's impossible to listen to that audio you just played without just feeling wrenched by that recollection that she clearly has, and sort of what that type of experience alleged in this case would've done to somebody.
KELLYThe sex crimes experts and memory experts that we talked to said, you know, typically, in a sexual assault situation, you would have a spotty memory. You might remember the act itself. You might remember your escape from it, but not necessarily all the ancillary details. And the very things that Dr. Ford was sort of criticized for not having a better memory of, what her transportation was to and from the place, what was the exact location, if there were six people there, including her -- there was one identity of one person she never could remember -- why not have these details?
KELLYAnd there's a recent poll, actually, that shows that people feel she probably should have remember more if this had actually happened to her. That breaks down a little bit along partisan lines. Republicans believe that a little bit more so than Democrats. But it's interesting that this idea of memory is not fully well understood.
KELLYThe other thing about her is, and it needs to be said, there is not contemporaneous corroboration for this account. So, it remains an allegation that Justice Kavanaugh denies. But, at the same time, we find her credible, and we talk in our epilogue about why that is. She was in near proximity to Kavanaugh and his groups of friends. Everything she has said about sort of who she was at that time and how she was connected to that group has checked out. Her good friend dated Brett Kavanaugh's good friend, who was alleged to be in the room when this happened. And there's no incentive that we can see, after close to a year of reporting, for her to have made this up.
NNAMDIWhen you talk about memory, I remember your late colleague David Carr's book called "The Night of the Gun," in which he went back to an incident that occurred in Minnesota, when he was high on crack cocaine. And he reported it as if he was reporting a story. And it was amazing the difference in the memories of the people who were involved in that incident on that particular night. Care to comment on that, Robin?
POGREBINYeah, I mean, people have kind of described it as a “Rashoman” situation, where you can have the same set of events and, you know, multiple different perspectives on it and memories of it. And some have posited to us that perhaps Brett Kavanaugh was actually horsing around at that event, and it was meaningless to him, as a result, and perhaps of a piece with a certain kind of juvenile behavior at the time. Whereas what she experienced as kind of threatening to her life was actually, to him, sort of benign. So, it is possible that it did not make an impact on him, and it made a devastating impact on her.
NNAMDIHere is Thomas, in Arlington, Virginia. Thomas, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
THOMASHi. Thanks for having me. You know, I think that the one thing that you have to think about is the microcosm of (word?) in the area, and that allows, you know, young immature adults or teens to make decisions that they are not equipped to do. And so the only, you know, big difference to that compared to maybe in other parts of the state is the wealth, right. And the parents give their children the access to a lot of these substances unwillingly, just because of their access to that wealth.
THOMASAnd then also, that is, you know, a culture that is very much created by schools. Not just by -- you know, Brett Kavanaugh was completely wrong for what he did. There's no question about it, but also, where was everybody else that was stopping them, right?
NNAMDII want to talk about that for a second. Thank you very much for raising that issue. Kate Kelly, talk about the boys club culture at Georgetown Prep. How did that affect Kavanaugh's behavior in high school?
KELLYWell, I think the caller raises an interesting point, and you a very good question. I do want to talk about that, but just to respond briefly, I think that Georgetown Prep, in some ways, got an unfair rap at this time last year. I think the parents and the lack of attention being paid to some of this partying clearly plays a large role, as well, because, after all, on Friday and Saturday nights, the kids are typically not at school. Maybe for a game or something, but many of these parties took place in private homes.
KELLYIn terms of the boys club, it clearly was an all-boys school. There were a limited number of women on the faculty, and certainly no women in the student body. And, as I mentioned earlier, there was this culture of sort of dismissiveness toward girls, or even disparagement along sexual lines. You can see that in their underground newspaper, the yearbook, etcetera.
POGREBINBut also a bullying culture.
KELLYRight. And so, there was a tradition there that some of the younger boys, typically freshmen, were sort of hazed. And they might be duct-taped to a locker or stuffed inside of a locker, dropped in a trash can and getting food all over their clothes. And, for the most part, the faculty did not tolerate this. But from what I'm told, many times, they weren't around. This would happen when kids knew that the faculty wasn't watching and they weren't going to be disciplined. And it kind of went on relatively unchecked.
KELLYWe even tell a story in the book of someone who was a contemporary of Kavanaugh's who sort of settled an ongoing fight with another student by punching him in the nose, to the point where it bled. And according to this alumnus, shortly thereafter, a faculty member said to him, look, I understand you took care of something. And he regarded it as a kind of a tacit approval of that sort of frankly violent inter-student interaction.
NNAMDIRobin, you attended Yale at the same time as Justice Kavanaugh. In your research, did you find that this boys club mentality carried over into his college years?
POGREBINI mean, I would hesitate to paint all of the people in Brett Kavanaugh's cohort with one brush. But I do feel like there was sort of a rowdy, heavily drinking kind of sanctioned culture around those guys. And, to be fair, there just wasn't the consciousness there is now around issues of Me Too and how you talk about women, how you treat women. And, you know, I think a lot of this was sort of braggadocio, and not necessarily followed through on in actions. And there was one classmate who spoke to me for the book about kind of standing next to Brett Kavanaugh at the keg and hearing Kavanaugh say things that he thought his mother would be ashamed to hear him say.
POGREBINI think it's one thing to be kind of disparaging women verbally. And it's another to actually be assaulting them sexually. So, it is all kind of on a spectrum of behavior, but I do think that there just certainly was a lot less sensitivity to these issues. And so this behavior wasn't called out the way it is now.
NNAMDIWe do need to talk about the other allegations made during Kavanaugh's time at Yale. Your reporting provides strong substantiation of an account made by Deborah Ramirez. Can you tell us a little bit about that incident and what it meant for Ramirez?
POGREBINYes. So, Deborah Ramirez was in Brett Kavanaugh's class and mine at Yale's class of 1987. And she recalls attending a freshman year dorm party, where everybody was very drunk. She was part of a drinking game, where she was kind of targeted to drink in a group of boys. At one point, there was a fake penis in her face, which took her by surprise, obviously. Then, the next thing she knew, there was another penis in her face, and she swatted it away, and it was real. And she was really thrown by that. She had not expected to touch a man's genitals until she was married. She was raised in working class Connecticut, in a very sheltered Catholic upbringing. So, this was incredibly unsettling to her.
POGREBINAnd perhaps most damaging was just having Brett and his friends laugh at her for having kind of been the dupe of this joke, and feeling, you know, just very much humiliated. And it also confirmed a sense of inadequacy and insecurity with which she came to Yale in the first place, which is that she didn't necessarily belong there, because of her background. Also, as a person of color, there was a feeling that there was a certain kind of deficit she was trying to overcome. And, as a result, this experience was formative.
POGREBINWe also found an additional allegation that has never been...
NNAMDI(overlapping) About a third woman. What can you tell us about that?
POGREBINYeah. So, this was never in the public sphere, although it was making the rounds during the hearings, apparently, in which another classmate, Max Stier...
NNAMDIA frequent guest on this broadcast.
POGREBINYes, he's well known in Washington, a kind of good government, nonpartisan organization that he runs and is passionate about. And he recalls observing Kavanaugh exposing himself to another classmate at a similar dorm party that was also very drunken. It should be said that the woman in question there, who we do name in the book, has told friends she doesn't recall the incident. But Max does have a clear memory of having seen it. And he brought that information, most importantly, to senators during the hearings, as well as brought it to the attention of the FBI, but it was never pursued.
NNAMDIKnowing what you now know, do you think that Justice Kavanaugh's testimony before Congress was made in good faith? I put that question to both of you.
KELLYWe think it was very lawyerly. We both watched it repeatedly, and sort of gone through it line by line. And you can find in our book sort of a deconstruction of some of it, and, you know, what did he say versus what we have come to understand from our reporting. It's not clear to us that he lied. Some people strongly believe that he lied, but we feel like without knowing what was in his head, what of these things that he does remember, if anything, it's impossible. Or in the absence of him telling someone that he was misleading the public, it's impossible to say that he lied.
KELLYIn some cases, he was wrong on the facts, based on other people who were eyewitnesses or were privy to the same situations, or he was putting a best possible sheen on it. One example of that might be the Renate shaming. Just briefly there was a young woman in his circle of friends back in high school. Renate was her first name. And there was a sexually sort of disparaging song about her, as well as just general kind of locker room-style talk about her among him and his friends. And many people have attested to the fact that that occurred.
KELLYBut she also was a friend of theirs, and she also went to a dance with him at one point. And he sort of apologized for the way in which her name has come up as a target of disparagement through reporting last year. And said, you know, the references to her were simply meant to show affection, for example, in the yearbook, and that she was one of us. And I think that's kind of the kindest possible interpretation of what was going on. Is it possible that he simply doesn't remember or has kind of blocked out the darker part of that? Maybe.
POGREBINI think also, I mean, in terms of, you know, what we found is that, you know, he's a very good lawyer. He's an experienced judge. He would be careful to overtly lie. Like, in terms of the drinking, where we had so many Yale classmates kind of come out of the woodwork to say, wait a minute, that's not the Brett we remember. He wasn't an altar boy in college. He drank to great excess, and they all have strong memories of that. Brett Kavanaugh said he sometimes had too many beers, so he technically did admit to having drank too much at times.
NNAMDIDon't have a great deal of time left, but what struck me about this book is how human, how sympathetic just about everyone comes across in the epilogue for this book. You quote his mother, Martha Kavanaugh, who was herself a prosecutor, and would often say at the dinner table, use your common sense. What rings true? What rings false? With this standard in mind, what conclusion did you come to about these allegations?
POGREBINWell, thank you for saying that. We really tried to bring out sort of the human side of this experience, which was very difficult for all the parties involved, and continues to haunt them all. We looked at our reporting, and we explain it in detail in kind of a summary in the epilogue. And our readers are very welcome to take away whatever they feel appropriate from the facts that we've shared, some of which are new, and some of which are in a more depth look at what we already knew from last year.
POGREBINBut, in our minds, using this sort of common sense Martha Kavanaugh test, we find Ford to be credible. We find Ramirez to be much better corroborated than she was last year. Julie Swetnick, who was another accuser, the aspects of her accusations that pertained at least to Kavanaugh and to his friend Mark Judge, we do not feel are credible. And we go through some other things, as well. We are only speculating on what may have happened, but it seems that if Kavanaugh, as a young person, did drink to the point of blackout, he may have forgotten some of these things. And that could perhaps explain why he felt that he was being honest last year, and Dr. Ford felt that she was being honest. So, we found in the last...
NNAMDI(overlapping) But you also came to the conclusion that this could be a man who has changed.
POGREBINYes. I was just going to say, in the last 36 years, we did not find evidence of similar behavior. We do find a person who appears to have been changed, either consciously, or just because he matured and grew up. But he has a kind of outstanding reputation as a judge, who is respected on both sides of the aisle. He has also meaningfully mentored women on the court, in terms of hiring female clerks and then mentoring them and promoting them throughout their careers.
POGREBINAnd, you know, he is a church-going, volunteering...
POGREBIN...basketball-coaching parent. And so it's a different Brett Kavanaugh that we see today.
NNAMDIDo you think his past and his character as a young man is relevant to his performance as a Supreme Court Justice today?
KELLYThis is a huge and good question that we ultimately leave up to the reader, but we definitely wrestled with ourselves, and we think it is a question for our time. I mean, there is an argument that what someone does between the ages of 17 ad 19 should not damn them for the rest of their lives. There are others who say that, you know, what's in your character at that point is in your character forever, and that a person who has even been capable of those kinds of acts just simply doesn't deserve to be on the court at any point in his life.
NNAMDIThe District of Columbia council just passed a law saying that if a crime was committed, a violent crime by someone before that person was the age of 25 and that person has served 15 years in prison, then that person can be reconsidered -- that person's case can be reconsidered, because of what they're finding out about the brain and how it develops over time.
POGREBINThat the prefrontal cortex isn't fully developed until age 25?
NNAMDICorrect. Yeah, the...
POGREBINThat's something we came across in our reporting, too.
NNAMDIYeah. There was a pushback against that from people who say that, yes, we can understand that, except in cases of rape. They felt that that case should be the one exception. We don't know. What we do know is that we're just about out of time (laugh) here, and that Robin Pogrebin is a reporter on the New York Times' Culture Desk. She attended Yale College in 1987, at the same time as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
NNAMDIKate Kelly is a reporter for the New York Times who covers Wall Street. She attended the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C. Together, they are the authors of "The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation." Thank you both for joining us.
NNAMDIThis conversation about the new book, "The Education of Brett Kavanaugh" was produced by Julie Depenbrock. And our discussion about D.C.'s first open street event was produced by Maura Currie. Coming up tomorrow, a new report takes a look at access to schools in the District that are closing the achievement gap. Plus, thousands of local public servants expected their student loans to be forgiven by now. We'll find out why things did not work out as planned, and who is being held accountable. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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