Politics

I’ll Never Forget Brett Kavanaugh’s Anger

I saw a frightening side of him in 1998. I saw it again at the Christine Blasey Ford hearing 20 years later.

The author in the “YES I DO” jacket that she canvasses in.
The author in the “YES I DO” jacket that she canvasses in.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo provided by Judi Hershman.

Back in the 1990s, when my last name was Nardella, I was a mother of two living in a Virginia suburb of Washington, working as a Republican fundraiser. Through community engagement and charity work, I met Alice and Ken Starr. The Starrs, in turn, introduced me to the head of a Dallas-based strategic communications firm, Merrie Spaeth, and around 1997, Spaeth hired me to run her boutique D.C. office. Starr was then serving as the independent counsel investigating the relationship between Bill Clinton and a White House intern, and in 1998, Spaeth and I were charged with helping prep Starr to present his history-making report to Congress. In the course of our work, I met one of his team’s key lawyers, 33-year-old Brett Kavanaugh.

One day, after a group meeting in the independent counsel’s offices, I was alone in the conference room, walking around the table and gathering up materials. The door opened, and someone came in. I don’t believe I looked up to see who it was—I just assumed that somebody had forgotten something. In what seemed like a split second, Kavanaugh had come around to my side of the table and was invading my space, badgering me in a way that I didn’t understand. I changed directions around the table and kept moving. He followed on my heels.

Here’s how I remember our interaction:

Him (very angry): You are going to tell me exactly who you are and why you are here.

Me: I am here at the invitation of Judge Starr, and he shared with the group who I am and why I’m here.

Him (pointing a finger in my face, I can feel his breath): No. I’m telling you—

Me (defiant stance): And I’m telling you to go talk to Judge Starr.

I didn’t know what prompted the confrontation at the time, and I still don’t. He couldn’t have possibly thought I was a spy, because he knew who I was—we had met before and been in each other’s company several times since.

I know it sounds like a strange, ultimately meaningless conversation. But it’s not the exchange that sticks with me, it’s how he made me feel. You know when something is off. And in that moment, I was in fight-or-flight mode—well, specifically, flight mode. I remember flying around that table trying to get away from him. I was thinking: Why is he so mad? He knows who I am and why I’m here. I know he will not hurt me. Someone will come. Why isn’t someone coming? I kept saying Starr’s name, and finally Kavanaugh appeared to come to his senses. He stopped haranguing, his face relaxed, and he left the room. It was like he’d momentarily been a different person.

I hesitated to bother Starr. I had such enormous respect for him, and we were about to present the Starr Report. I was going to go to him with this? But professionally, I felt I was obliged to let him know—part of my job in prepping the team for the public was to watch for anything that might cause a problem. Starr seemed astounded when I told him what had happened. He said that he had never seen something like this from Kavanaugh before and that he was going to speak with him. There was tension in the office, we both agreed, and he said Kavanaugh probably was being protective of him. I said I thought Kavanaugh might be jealous or territorial—friends and outside advisers like me had started showing up more and more toward the end of the investigation. I believed Starr when he told me he would address it with Kavanaugh.

Starr also told me he thought Kavanaugh was going big places. He said he was very smart. He thought he might make the Supreme Court.

“Not if he treats women like that, he won’t,” I recall saying. This was seven years after Anita Hill’s testimony had made us all much more attuned to the gender dynamics of our workplaces.

I would ask Starr about Kavanaugh in the years following. I would say, “How’s Brett?” and he would reply that he was great, he was married, he was doing well. I saw Kavanaugh once or twice after that—one time at a private party where I believe he was with his wife. (Slate reached out to Kavanaugh, who declined to comment. Slate also contacted the author’s ex-husband, who said that she had told him in 2010 about a jarring interaction she’d had while working for Starr and that she’d clarified in 2012 that the interaction had been with Kavanaugh. Further, her daughter provided text messages from July—when Kavanaugh was known to be on the short list for the Supreme Court but before Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation was publicly known—in which the author said she had a story to share about Kavanaugh. She told her daughter the story later that month, before Ford’s accusation became public.)

I am a lifelong Republican. And yes, I am one of those Republicans who felt betrayed when my party bounded eagerly into the lap of Donald Trump, but that hardly makes me a Democrat. I don’t believe in the concept of sanctuary cities or consider monument-removal a priority. Until last year, I had a Virginia carry permit for my handgun. My conservative reflexes make it hard for me to oppose a Republican appointee.

But just over a month ago, I watched Kavanaugh defend himself before the Senate Judiciary Committee against Christine Blasey Ford’s charges of sexual assault. Her testimony struck me as credible. When I saw the nominee’s facial expression—the same pinched eyes and lips of the person who tried to bully me that day in 1998—I was taken aback. The word feral came to mind. And when he showed the entire world that rabid “temperament” I’d seen, a switch flipped inside me. I flashed back 20 years to that conference room and relived that guttural fear. I realized that what I had experienced that day hadn’t been some one-off outburst prompted by stress. And I decided that I had to go on record with the senators who were faced with choosing whether to give Kavanaugh lifetime tenure on the nation’s highest court. 

On Oct. 2, five days after Ford testified, I provided a statement describing my experience to Republican Sens. Jeff Flake and Lisa Murkowski; as bipartisan backup, I included Democratic Sens. Mazie Hirono and Chris Coons. A Hirono aide asked me if I wanted to give a statement to the FBI, but I didn’t reach out to the bureau, and no one from the FBI ever reached out to me. (The FBI investigation was already open when I gave my statement, and I assumed it was going to be a legitimate inquiry that focused on accusations that were more serious than my own.) In and of itself, my story is not earth-shattering—there was no physical contact, let alone criminal behavior; I was rattled but not traumatized. But it does suggest Kavanaugh’s alleged belligerence extended beyond high school and college and was not exclusively alcohol-related. It seemed to me to be relevant to the larger question of judicial temperament that the senators were charged with weighing as they considered whether to seat this man on the bench.

I shared my story with some Republican male friends in the weeks surrounding the hearing. None of them questioned its validity. They just didn’t think it mattered enough for their guy to lose his spot on the Supreme Court, just like none of the Republican male senators thought Ford’s story mattered enough to tank Kavanaugh’s nomination. And neither did Starr, apparently. I still have great respect for Starr, but I was astonished and dismayed when I saw him go on CNN the week after the historic Ford-Kavanaugh hearings and use the words “unblemished” and “perfect” to describe his protégé’s “reputation for treating people with dignity and respect.” (In a statement, Starr confirmed that the author assisted him during the independent counsel investigation and wrote, “I do not recall any mention of any incident involving Brett Kavanaugh. To the contrary, throughout his service in the independent counsel’s office, now-Justice Kavanaugh comported himself at all times with high professionalism and respect toward all our colleagues.”)

There’s a lot I’ve let slide in my life, but I will not let this one go. Which is why I flew from Northern Virginia to North Dakota on my own dime last week to help re-elect Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. I realized I had to do this when I saw the devastation etched on her face earlier this month, after she announced she’d be voting “no” on Kavanaugh’s nomination. It was a vote that has drawn insults from her opponent and will possibly sink her political future in her red state. It could also affect the balance of power in the Senate.

I submitted my statement to the senators because I didn’t want to find myself having to explain to my daughters why I didn’t stand up to Brett Kavanaugh the second time around. At Heitkamp headquarters in Bismarck, I’ve met four other women—from New York and Illinois as well as North Dakota—who volunteered because of what they saw in Kavanaugh’s testimony. Like me, they don’t want to sit and do nothing.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the author, and former Sen. Mary Landrieu pose in front of an American flag.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the author, and former Sen. Mary Landrieu.*
Photo provided by the author

When I go out canvassing, I wear an olive-drab jacket that I decorated with white custom lettering—on the back it reads YES I DO. I want everyone to know it’s OK to say you care. Indeed, people stop me everywhere to talk about my message. I knock on doors, and I talk to everyone who will listen to me. The conversations that stick with me the most are the ones with Democrats who say that they would have stood by Heitkamp even if she had voted for Kavanaugh. Those comments remind me of how remarkable it is that Heitkamp chose to do the right thing.

As I go from door to door, I have started telling the Democrats what I learned in my decades working for Republicans. Republicans win because they never, ever give up, and because Democrats do. But maybe, after Kavanaugh, Democrats will realize it’s time they change their tactics. Some things are not worth giving up.

Update, Nov. 5, 2018: This caption has been updated to add identification of former Sen. Mary Landrieu.