This Kavanaugh thing brought to mind a man from my hometown. I believe he died a few years ago. I’ll call him Mr. Gregory, because to my knowledge, there is no one with that name in my hometown, or at least there wasn’t when I was a kid, and that’s the time I’m going to refer to in this post.
Mr. Gregory was known for his wisdom, kindness, and intelligence. I was just a kid, but I knew, like other kids knew, that Mr. Gregory was the kind of many people think of when they call someone a pillar of the community. I moved away at 16, so I don’t know if Mr. Gregory involved himself in local politics or some other form of leadership. But he was definitely one of those informal leaders that every healthy community has. People looked up to him.
Once, when I was living in Texas, I was on the phone with a friend from back home, and we were talking about stuff in town — gossip, most likely. If memory serves, we were having a conversation about how you just never know about people. My friend mentioned in passing that Mr. Gregory had once cheated on his wife, sometime back in the 1970s or 1980s. It was shocking, and so out of character. I asked my friend how she knew this. She told me. It was irrefutably true.
That was a blow, I’ll admit. I just wouldn’t have expected that of Mr. Gregory, and told that to my friend. I said something nasty about him. She said to hold on, that the story was more complicated than that. I’m not going to share anything else about it here, so as not to make Mr. Gregory identifiable to people from my hometown. But let’s just say that Mrs. Gregory had made her husband’s life very hard. That did not excuse his adultery, but it did give it some context. Marriage is difficult. Mr. Gregory was weak, and did wrong. I’m pretty moralistic and judgmental when it comes to marriage and infidelity, but the information my friend gave me about the situation made me pity Mr. Gregory, and feel merciful towards him. In any case, his marriage did not break up, though my friend indicated that Mrs. Gregory discovered the affair.
Why do I bring this up here? In context of the Kavanaugh thing, I was thinking about our past sins and failings, and how they affect our fitness for public service. I would have supported Mr. Gregory for any office for which he had the competence. His character was admirable — which is why his serious lapse into adultery was such a shock. When I think about that man, and the life he lived — he was of my mom and dad’s generation, and like them and most of their friends, was born into rural poverty — I find his character even more admirable. He had a lot of strikes against him, but overcame them, and to my knowledge, tried to be fair and generous to everyone. Yes, his adultery was a dark stain on his character, but weighed in the balance of the rest of his life, I wouldn’t consider it disqualifying for most offices. In fact, I would a thousand times rather have a sinner like Mr. Gregory sitting on a court bench than someone who had never done anything seriously wrong, but who was rigid and overly legalistic in their approach to the law.
Don’t read this as me exonerating Kavanaugh. I would rather us not discuss him on this thread. But I do think we should consider to what extent we make it hard for human beings who fail, and fail seriously, to hold certain positions. I don’t believe we should tolerate everything. For example, a rape conviction ought to be automatically disqualifying. Child molestation, same thing. I could tolerate an adulterous magistrate much more easily than an adulterous pastor. We can make distinctions, and have to do so simply to live in society.
I keep going back to Mr. Gregory, though. What if he had been a brilliant judge nominated for a higher office, and what if he had been subjected to these kinds of hearings? Would his nomination have endured being pilloried by moralists on the Left (if he was a Republican) or the Right (if he was a Democrat) over his adultery? Knowing his character, he probably never would have considered serving if there was a chance that he and his wife and their children would be humiliated.
P.J. O’Rourke, writing in the 1980s, wisecracked that the kind of people who didn’t smoke pot in college were the kind of people you did NOT want running the government. He was being funny, but there was some truth in his joke. He was making a point about the kind of wisdom it takes to govern well, and how the ramrod-straight people who never succumb to any temptation might have certain deficits that sinners do not. Obviously this is not a blanket exoneration of drunks and potheads and condemnation of the goody-goodies, but I think it’s a point worth considering.