Competence and the Kavanaugh hearings


My previous column promised an examination of the competence displayed in resolving the Kavanaugh question. I can begin this examination by saying that Sen. Susan Collins stands out for a stellar display of competence. On the evening of her announcement, a newly termed-out legislator called me in an exultant mood. A Collins-skeptic of long standing, he could not stop praising her presentation. He went on so long I had to shut him down to get some sleep.

On the Saturday that followed I read the transcript of her speech and took a look at the video. It wasn’t just that she justified her promised vote. She went well beyond self justification. Her speech systematically dissected and demolished the liberal attacks on Kavanaugh while making the case for him is straightforward terms.

Think of the context. For years, column after column, editorial after editorial, report upon report, the “respectable” media bestowed laudatory adjectives, like centrist, moderate, and independent upon her. She, more than any other senator, was the focus of attention as a swing vote on this nomination.

I had my doubts. I always have doubts about moderates, simply because most professional hacks agree that moderation wins general elections; and I have no reliable way to distinguish an opportunist from a moderate. Like Angus, I thought, Collins could be putting on a show of deliberation in order to keep her moderate image intact.

It turned out she was not procrastinating but deliberating — formulating a systematic defense. The careful moderate became the focus of enormous attention, waiting, waiting until the last minute. Conservatives waited anxiously. Left-Lurchers waited hopefully. And then the moderate centrist lowered the boom on the whole Hate Brett campaign.

Geoffrey P. Hunt, a conservative columnist, wrote a column on October 8 entitled “Stateswoman Susan Collins Stands Alone” in which he wrote, “U.S. Senator Susan Collins delivered a scholarly and meticulous exegesis from the floor of the Senate chamber on Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s jurisprudence, and defense of the bedrock American rule-of-law centered on evidence, and presumption of innocence for the accused.”

Seth Lipsky made an important point in his editorial for the New York Sun. “Yet what strikes us about Senator Collins’ magnificent moment,” he wrote, “is that it is about more than courage — it is a profile in substance. The Maine Republican is practically the only person in the Senate to approach this decision by reasoning out the substance of the constitutional questions that have the Democrats so panicked.”

A more restrained conservative columnist wrote a column commenting that Collins “whose New England-style Swiss cheese conservatism has earned her electoral security in Maine but grumbles of frustration from the conservative base…employed her usual traits of nuance and even-handedness, but this time toward a bold moment that did not spare the Democrats and other Kavanaugh-haters the scolding they deserved. For this, she was pilloried as having abandoned her moderate credentials for admission to the Trump agenda clubhouse…”

These three conservative writers touched on all the important points contained in our senator’s statement. Although some among them had comments worth quoting, no other Republican senator did as well.

What about the Judiciary Committee Democrats? I feel obliged to assume the posture of exact non-partisan objectivity while comparing the competence of the Democrats on the Judicial Committee with the careful presentation by Maine’s senior senator. I summon the spirits of dead sages to illuminate my analysis.

Sheldon Whitehouse displayed his forensic skills by a close reading of some high school yearbook scribblings. Plato would have advised Sheldon that “wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something.”

Mazie Hirono spoke up to order all men to shut up. A woman claiming victim status, she maintained, must be allowed to speak up without contradiction. Mazie might benefit from heeding Will Rogers’ advice, “Never miss a good chance to shut up.“

Cory Booker’s prolonged stump speech histrionics, crowned by his Spartacus heroics, strain my powers of objective analysis. I can only think of H.L. Mencken’s description of Pres. Harding’s oratory:

“It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup; of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights…It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish and crawls insanely up to the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and dumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”

Richard Blumenthal, famously exposed for faking his Vietnam veteran status, reminded Kavanaugh about the “falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus” dictum. A Samuel Johnson paraphrase suggests itself: “Why, Sir, Dick is dull, naturally dull; but it must have taken him a great deal of pains to become what we now see him. Such an excess of stupidity, Sir, is not in nature.”

Patrick Leahy maintained the same subterranean standard he set for himself during the Bork hearing. I tried to remember who told us the worst bore is the one who causes others to become boring. Then I dozed off.

Dick Durbin described the audible but unintelligible caterwauling of a mob of protesters in the hearing chamber as the “sound of democracy.” I have no words. Is it enough to quote Mae West? “His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.”

These senators all have law degrees from respectable or prestigious law schools. It would be inappropriate to quote that thing in Shakespeare’s Troilus & Cressida about persons who “hath not so much brain as ear wax.” So I won’t.

But I will say that I’ve found no liberal pundit willing to describe their performances as brilliant, or convincing, or intelligent, or even competent. In fact, I haven’t found any sage willing to say anything about their prattle. It’s always a significant clue when the dogs don’t bark. If I’ve missed something, I’m open to correction.

We must not overlook our state’s other senator. Some critics are suggesting that Independent Angus’s remarks were drafted by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s press office. I doubt it. They seem too shallow and superficial, even for a press office. Charles Dickens provides just the right phrase: “He’d be sharper than a serpent’s tooth if he wasn’t as dull as ditch water.”

“Pilloried” is the right word for the reaction that Collins has brought down on her head. She broke a hundred passionate Hollywood hearts. Molly Ringwald is deeply annoyed: “Susan Collins you are a betrayer of women.”

George Takei’s religious principles are under strain: “As a Buddhist it is my practice to have compassion for all people. But @SenatorCollins is really testing my limits right now.” Seth MacFarlane delivered some bad news: “You had the opportunity to claim a legacy as a pivotal, forward-thinking voice in the enterprise of progress, of cultural evolution. Alas, @SenatorCollins, you will fade into history as a follower, not a leader.” Minnie Driver is taking action: “Women. Women not believing women. Assuring the rise of toxic masculinity, and giving it a permanent home. I feel utter despair right now -funding Susan Collins Dem opponent won’t save the generations of women who’s lives will suffer b/c of Kavanaugh. Donating anyway.”

Let’s not leave Alyssa Milano out. She hates being left out. “Don’t let this performance fool you. If @SenatorCollins believed in #MeToo she would have opened the door when I was in her office to hear stories of constituent survivors.”

Heed my prediction; you will not see a single reference to “accusers” for a long time to come. The word accuser implies an accusation, and accusations require evidence. Evidence may be dispute. Question a “survivor” and you reveal yourself as an insensitive brute or a traitress to your sistren. Belief is mandatory.

We turn at last to Dana Milbank, the Washington Post’s most reliable robot. The title of the column, “Susan Collins’s Declaration of Cowardice,” tells most of the story, but it has an odd ending. “To be worthy of Margaret Chase Smith,” Dana advises us, “Collins would have to take a personal risk and use her pulpit and her vote to denounce the misogynist who leads her party and her colleagues who enable him.”

Dangerous Dana makes no attempt to critique the Collins critique. Channeling Margaret Chase Smith is enough. It’s unreasonable to ask for more.


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