Our Discreet Capital
The separation of wheat from chaff occurs commonly at elite high schools near the city, but those who experience it usually only recognize it—often painfully—in retrospect.
The Devil’s Triangle: Mark Judge vs. the New American Stasi, by Mark Judge, Bombardier, 224 pages.
Not long after Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, I met him as I was exiting a cocktail party. He held a bottle in one hand, wrapped in a napkin. I stopped him—surely I was one among many that night—and shook his free hand. When I walked to the door, I snuck a look at the label and chuckled. I murmured, not loud enough, I think, for him to hear, “We drank beer. I liked beer. Still like beer.”
Later that night, I reflected on the incident with shame. Kavanaugh didn’t hear me, but I am certain he could read the words in my eyes. How many times since October 2018, I wondered, has he detected a smirk behind someone’s smile? How often does he walk into a public room and immediately know that everyone there is replaying in their minds his televised humiliation? Does he ever descend the stairs at his house in Chevy Chase and ask himself, with a sigh of resignation, when the protesters will next block his driveway? During the most rigorous days of coronavirus shutdowns, he was the only Supreme Court justice to work consistently out of his office on Capitol Hill, and I can understand why. Nowhere else was hidden from the eyes of his fellow Washingtonians.
After all, Washingtonians, who often think of themselves as more grand than people in other American cities, are a gossipy lot, forever attempting to find import in their neighbors’ most mundane habits. Kavanaugh is a special case even among these. He was born in the city and, as his status in it rose, plenty of Washingtonians from his childhood in Bethesda to his time at Yale Law School watched with interest. When Christine Blasey Ford accused him of a drunken sexual advance attempted in high school—speaking up nearly twenty-five years after the fact—many others who knew him from his school days also took the opportunity to speak. His old enemies demonized him and his old friends defended him, but it all amounted to about the same thing. Kavanaugh was becoming Somebody, and anyone who could plausibly connect himself to Kavanaugh might become Somebody too.
It was with this rule in mind that I approached The Devil’s Triangle: Mark Judge vs. the New American Stasi, a memoir of sorts from one of Kavanaugh’s droogs at Georgetown Prep. Mark Judge played perhaps the least fortunate role in his high school drinking buddy’s saga. Against his own will, Judge became a national figure when Ford claimed he had egged Kavanaugh on during the attempted assault. Democratic senators demanded he testify against his old friend, reporters chased him around the Delmarva Peninsula, and the FBI investigated every detail from his life in the 1980s, down to the exact circumstances under which he lost his virginity. While every other Washingtonian who had gone to high school around the same time as Kavanaugh was drawing connections and poring over old yearbooks, Judge was forced to relive and pay the price for his youthful misdeeds. His legendary keggers, elaborate toilet jokes, and puerile sexual innuendos—all these became, in the eyes of the public, a representation of everything vain and ugly about the Reagan era, and Judge became a stand-in for the suspiciously straight-laced Kavanaugh.
“Opposition researchers had looked into my life, found a crazy period in the mid-1980s when my alcoholism was at its worst, and tried to tie Brett into that era,” Judge writes. “The benders, the blackouts, the anonymous women—it was essential for them to put me and Brett together during that period.”
The job was not easy, since those few years at Prep were the only time when Judge and Kavanaugh were close. They played football together, vacationed together, and threw wild parties together. But it seems like there isn’t much more to it than that. Even in Judge’s account, it becomes clear that, by the end of high school, Kavanaugh was entering the ranks of professional Washingtonians while many of his friends were simply becoming townies. This separation of wheat from chaff occurs commonly at elite high schools near the city, but those who experience it usually only recognize it—often painfully—in retrospect. Judge first realized that he and Kavanaugh were friends in a static sense (frozen in time somewhere around 1983), when they, along with other high school friends, met at a bar during the Ken Starr investigation. Kavanaugh, who was working on Starr’s team, refused to engage with Judge on the subject—and Judge realized then that it was “because he has moved up in political circles.”
At that time, Judge was still in the early stages of recovering from his alcoholism, and the distinctions between him and his upwardly mobile classmate had not yet fully emerged. But it had at least become clear that he was stuck in much the same place as in high school. His grandfather, Joe Judge, was one of the great heroes of the Washington Senators, who led the team to win the 1924 World Series. His father, Joseph Judge, was an editor at National Geographic, who likely discovered the true point of Christopher Columbus’ landfall in the New World. But Mark Judge himself, like so many sons and grandsons of great men, was, at that time, at least, a ne’er-do-well, a writer for alternative newspapers and a philosophical dilettante.
He consoled himself by looking to the example of Pat Buchanan, one of the few professional Washingtonians who has also always remained a townie. Judge latched onto Buchanan not so much for his politics but for his romanticized depiction of his childhood in the city. “I never left the District,” Buchanan claims of his upbringing. “I did not leave the city until I was twenty-one years old.” Buchanan, Judge writes, will always be a figure of fascination for locals because he is “not only a national political figure but also a panjandrum of the D.C. Catholic Ghetto.” And Judge, who was involved in many of the same Jesuit institutions as Buchanan, sees himself in a similar role, a man with friends in two cities: the one on Capitol Hill and the real one, which for him is Georgetown, the dives on U Street, and the crumbling row houses near Howard University. By comprehending both equally, he can safely claim that he fully belongs to neither—and put a comfortable distance between himself and the reality of his situation.
The Kavanaugh hearings, however, laid that reality bare. When asked about Judge, Kavanaugh was frank: “Mark Judge was a friend of ours in high school, who developed a very serious drinking problem that lasted decades and was very difficult for him to escape from.” Ever careful to refer to Judge in the past tense, Kavanaugh told the Senate Judiciary Committee that it was unseemly for such distinguished people to “sit here and make fun of some guy who has an addiction.” Most people interpreted these remarks as a harsh dismissal, but Judge reads them the opposite way, as protection from a loving—albeit distant—friend. And to anyone who thinks otherwise about his friend’s honesty, Judge points out that since he knew Kavanaugh in high school, he is specially equipped to understand “his body language, his intonations, his moods, and how to read them.”
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This is patently absurd, but I won’t pick on Judge too much for it. What happened to him was horrible and its effects will remain with him for the rest of his life. And anyway, many people on the opposite side of the fight made similar claims about special knowledge of Kavanaugh’s ways, often with even more tenuous connections to the man. Mike Sacks, for instance, was, until the hearings, an obscure humor writer whose sole distinction was growing up in Montgomery County near Kavanaugh’s childhood neighborhood. He used the Supreme Court fight to air his envy of those who grew up just a little wealthier and a little rowdier than he—“this entitled type,” he said of those who, unlike him, attended private schools and spent weekends at country clubs. “Things had a tendency to happen while you were around them,” he said of the Prep boys. “When they got drunk, all bets were off.” More brash was Julie Swetnick, who, perhaps in an attempt to unburden herself of the embarrassment of attending public school in Gaithersburg, claimed that in the early 1980s, she had become enmeshed in a bacchanalian party scene with the private school kids. Kavanaugh had raped her, she added, or at least been present to her rape. Swetnick’s story quickly fell apart, mostly because more than sixty classmates from Prep and its sister schools disavowed her—and made clear that they had never even met her.
That last part made the letter sting. It drew a clear line between people who matter in Washington, D.C., and those who don’t. And every time some townie such as Sacks or Swetnick attempted to place his or herself close to Kavanaugh, those who actually had dealings with the man smacked them away. (To a certain extent, this includes Judge, who was an inconvenience at best to Kavanaugh’s team.) Even Ford, who won sympathy from nearly everyone watching the hearings, was dismissed by her family for winning recognition in such an outré, debased manner. Throughout the whole confirmation process, her parents refused to comment, except for her father’s noncommittal endorsement of affection: “I think any father would have love for his daughter.” And afterward, it is said that Ford’s father approached Kavanaugh’s father at their country club, congratulated him on his son’s good fortune, and remarked that the whole ordeal had been horrible for both families. They shook hands, and that was that. If there is any easy way to understand the true Washington pecking order, it is that those who blab the least are nearest to the top.
For similar reasons, I don’t think Kavanaugh will ever share his own side of the story. As it stands, enough people are willing to interpret it all on his behalf. “Our friends—and our enemies—always know us better than we know ourselves,” W. H. Auden once remarked. “There are, to be sure, a few corrective touches to their picture of us which only we can add, and these, as a rule, are concerned with our vulnerabilities and our weaknesses.” Somehow I doubt that, even five years later, Kavanaugh feels any need to address the hangers-on making claims about his vulnerabilities and weaknesses. The less he says, the higher he rises.