Kavanaugh’s ‘Character Assassination’

Kavanaugh’s ‘Character Assassination’

Reprinted with permission from Creators.

Brett Kavanaugh and his defenders could have used a thesaurus this week as they tried to cope with a second allegation of sexual assault. As it was, they could find only two terms to characterize the questions and charges lodged against him.

The Supreme Court nominee said he was the target of “a smear” and “character assassination.” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, also detected “character assassination.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave a speech using “smear” six times.

Newt Gingrich also charged Kavanaugh’s critics with “character assassination.” About the only terminological variation came from Donald Trump, who decried a “con job” based on “False Accusations the likes of which have never been seen before!”

All this was before a third person, Julie Swetnick, said she was the victim of a gang rape at a high school party attended by Kavanaugh. But the responses to this claim are bound to stick to the same script.

For Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill to express outrage at allegedly fictitious accusations proves only that they are immune to shame. You could not find anyone who knows more about character assassination, from the assassin’s point of view, than the president.

Trump claimed Barack Obama was a Kenyan-born Muslim, tried to implicate Ted Cruz’s father in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and dismissed Rosie O’Donnell as “mentally sick.” He could have written “The Art of the Smear.”

Gingrich is a kindred spirit. In 1990, he urged Republican candidates to refer to their Democratic opponents with such words as “radical,” “corrupt,” “bizarre,” “sick” and “traitors.”

The term “character assassination” refers to criticism of a public figure based on his personal qualities or behavior rather than, say, his position on tax reform or the 14th Amendment. Sometimes it is meant to blacken a reputation so that the person becomes unacceptable to the public. Sometimes it draws a connection between character flaws or misconduct and how the person will perform in a position of public trust.

The classic example is Bill Clinton, who Republicans tried to destroy over charges of adultery, sexual assault and perjury. They believed such conduct rendered him unfit for the office. But they didn’t refer to their efforts as “character assassination.”

The term is never used by those committing it, because it carries such a negative connotation. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, but we don’t refer to the raid as an assassination. Kavanaugh’s defenders use the term to suggest he is being viciously slandered.

Maybe the claims made by these women are unfounded. But it’s not a smear for women to come forward with recollections about Kavanaugh, accurate or not. Nor are journalists behaving irresponsibly when they report such claims, even if the charges can’t be corroborated. When Kathleen Willey said Clinton groped her, it was her word against his, but the news media faithfully reported her account.

I don’t know if Kavanaugh did what Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick say he did. Neither do the people who accuse journalists and Democratic senators of smears. The evidence and testimony so far are suggestive but not conclusive.

Ford and Kavanaugh are slated to testify Thursday, but their testimonies may not yield a clear answer. And Ramirez, whose attorney says she is willing to appear, has not been invited.

The obvious thing to do when such charges arise is to fully investigate them. When Clinton was the object of various allegations, special prosecutor Kenneth Starr took four years to assess them (with the assistance of one Brett Kavanaugh). If an innocent person is falsely accused, a thorough inquiry is the surest way to clear his name.

But Trump and Senate Republicans have no use for that option. They want to move on as quickly as possible. McConnell vowed Monday to “plow right through” the controversy and confirm the nominee.

Hatch says of the Democratic demand for an investigation, “everything is an excuse for delay.” But Republicans are in no position to rail against unnecessary postponements after they refused to hold a hearing or a vote on the nomination of Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court.

Back then, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said eight justices would suffice indefinitely. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., even vowed to keep the position vacant for another four years if Hillary Clinton were elected president. Suddenly, however, they feel an urgency they didn’t before.

Kavanaugh’s more brazen defenders don’t need to worry about anyone assassinating their characters. Their characters have already committed suicide.

Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.


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