The explosive, late-arising allegations of sexual misconduct threatening to derail Decide Brett M. Kavanaugh’s affirmation to the Supreme Courtroom make it pure to level to the parallel between the current second and Anita Hill’s prices in opposition to Decide Clarence Thomas 27 years in the past.
In each instances, the affirmation hearings ended on schedule earlier than members of the Senate Judiciary Committee discovered themselves unexpectedly in session once more to listen to allegations in opposition to the nominees, in Decide Thomas’s case, that he sexually harassed Ms. Hill.
However this eerie parallel, separated by a era of cultural change — or maybe it is going to develop into solely presumed change or wished-for change — isn’t the angle from which I need to examine these two instances on the eve of the Kavanaugh listening to. Somewhat, I need to provide a observe of warning about one thing else the 2 may prove to share: that the questions raised about Decide Kavanaugh in his first listening to might be submerged by the onrushing tide of scandal, as they have been for Justice Thomas.
I’ve noticed that many individuals who adopted the Thomas nomination intently, even together with those that retain robust emotions concerning the dramatic second listening to, have forgotten what occurred within the first spherical — the actual listening to, as I’ve persevered in calling it for the previous 27 years. I don’t imply to dismiss or diminish the importance of Ms. Hill’s allegations or of the outrageous means the lads of the Judiciary Committee handled her. However I do suppose it’s unlucky that the cynicism and racial politics that infused the nomination of the underqualified 43-year-old Decide Thomas to a lifetime place within the seat as soon as held by Thurgood Marshall has been erased from public reminiscence.
It issues that the person President Bush known as “the best man for the job on the merits” was unwilling or unable under the senators’ questioning to deviate an inch from his prepared talking points; that although he was a sitting federal appeals court judge (albeit for only 18 months) his knowledge of recent Supreme Court decisions was shaky at best; or that he made the implausible claim that he had never expressed a view, even in conversation, about Roe v. Wade, a precedent that he then voted, in dissent, to repudiate when the opportunity arose during his first year on the Supreme Court bench.
It matters that the man who is now the court’s senior associate justice, and who would turn the constitutional clock back to the 18th century if he ever found four colleagues to agree with him, distanced himself during his confirmation hearing from the extreme conservative views he had spent years espousing in speeches. Those were, he claimed, nothing more than the musings of a “part-time political theorist.” Pressed to explain his position that there was a “natural law” higher than the Constitution, he uttered perhaps the most candid line of the entire proceeding: “I certainly never thought I’d be having this discussion.”
And I’d like to think that people remember his remarkable description of the transformation he underwent when he became a judge and “shed the baggage of ideology.” It was an “amazing process,” he told the senators. “You want to be stripped down like a runner.”
In one way, Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court nominee is Clarence Thomas’s opposite. His conventional qualifications are not in doubt. (The American Bar Association committee that deemed him “well qualified,” the organization’s highest rating, had adjudged Clarence Thomas to be only “qualified,” with a minority of the members deeming him “unqualified.”) After a Supreme Court clerkship and 12 years on the federal appellate bench, he has an easy familiarity with the intricacies of the Supreme Court’s docket. His avoidance of direct questions about his substantive views was graceful to the point of tedium, and not a surprise to anyone.
So what should the public remember from the “real” Brett Kavanaugh hearing? Again, to be clear, I don’t mean to minimize the importance of the hearing scheduled for Thursday. My concern is that the vulnerabilities that have come to light in recent days — not only Dr. Blasey’s precise allegation of sexual assault but also tales of the nominee’s heavy drinking in high school and beyond, his disturbingly suggestive yearbook entry, and his buddy who could say a lot but who chooses not to talk — collectively have already started to drown out the vulnerabilities that should have made the nomination something other than the partisan glide path to confirmation that it was on when the first-round hearing ended.
What were those earlier vulnerabilities? His work for the George W. Bush White House, many details of which have never been fully disclosed. His willingness last year, as a judge, to delay an undocumented teenager’s access to an abortion to which she was legally entitled, along with the not inconsiderable prospect that he would provide the long-awaited fifth vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. More fundamentally, there is the weighty argument that a president who may not have been legitimately elected, and who had already filled a Supreme Court seat that everyone knows was President Barack Obama’s to fill, had not earned the right to project onto the court a minority constitutional vision and lock it in place, probably for decades.
No matter what happens on Thursday and in the days to come, I hope people will remember what the Kavanaugh nomination looked like at the close of the initial hearing.
Covering the first hearing for Clarence Thomas back in 1991 and listening to him explain how he had transformed himself into a blank slate, I recalled a line from the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay: “A man no longer what he was, nor yet the thing he’d planned.”
At this moment, the line fits Brett Kavanaugh, too. He and Clarence Thomas have that in common.
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter (@NYTopinion), and join the Opinion Immediately e-newsletter.