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Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's Rise Continues To Fascinate In 'Dissent'

The past 4 1/2 years have been a fever dream in American politics.

Donald Trump's administration was marked by unprecedented chaos and drama, with major stories crowding one another out of the news on a daily basis.

<em>Dissent: The Radicalization of the Republican Party and Its Capture of the Court</em>, by Jackie Calmes
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Dissent: The Radicalization of the Republican Party and Its Capture of the Court, by Jackie Calmes

But one major event — the confirmation hearings of now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — still sticks in the minds of Americans all along the political spectrum.

Kavanaugh's ascension to the nation's highest court is the subject of Dissent, the new book from Los Angeles Times White House editor Jackie Calmes. It's not the first book to tackle the rise of the controversial justice — Ruth Marcus did so in Supreme Ambition, as did Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly in The Education of Brett Kavanaugh — but it's a fascinating look not only into the life and career of Kavanaugh, but also into the American conservative movement's successful long-term plan to move the Supreme Court rightward. As Calmes describes it, this was "a forty-year dream, taking control of the nation's highest court with an unquestionably conservative majority."

Calmes traces Kavanaugh's childhood in the Washington, D.C., area, where he grew up the son of a lawyer and a lobbyist. The younger Kavanaugh attended Georgetown Prep, a boys' high school known for "sports and partying" and which also had a "darker side," Calmes writes: "[A]t Prep a chauvinistic machismo was celebrated. After a weekend of bad behavior, guys wouldn't have to soberly confront the offended girls in the corridors and classes."

Kavanaugh went on to earn his undergraduate and law degrees at Yale and earned his conservative bona fides early in his career as a lawyer, interning for Ken Starr, then President George H.W. Bush's solicitor general. He would later co-author Starr's famed government report on President Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, which would lead to the Democrat's impeachment.

It was Kavanaugh's conservative cred that led Trump to nominate the jurist for the Supreme Court, which led to one of the most dramatic hearings in recent Senate history. Psychologist Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of viciously assaulting her when they were both high school students as one of the young man's friends looked on; her claims shook the nation, with one passage from her testimony — "Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter—the uproarious laughter between the two — and their having fun at my expense" — resounding among survivors of sexual assault.

Calmes writes about Ford's decision to come forward with real sensitivity and fairness, and she speaks to numerous sources about the psychologist's experiences — Calmes is a first-rate reporter, and her skills are on full display here. Her chronicle of the Kavanaugh hearing, at which Ford laid out her claims against Kavanaugh, is riveting. She captures Ford's dramatic appearance beautifully: "At one point, she nervously turned to the friends behind her, smiled, and waved slightly," Calmes writes. Turning back, she faced the senators, visibly breathed deep, and swallowed hard. The tension was palpable — hers, and everyone else's."

Kavanaugh, of course, would eventually be confirmed, after his own tearful testimony in which he denied attacking Ford. Dissent ends with a look at Kavanaugh's brief tenure on the Supreme Court, which Calmes considers carefully and with real insight. Noting that some conservatives have been disappointed in Chief Justice John Roberts, Calmes writes, "Kavanaugh did not disappoint conservatives, however: He came down on the 'right' side on the abortion, Dreamers, and gay rights decisions, and signaled eagerness to expand gun rights."

Interspersed throughout the book is Calmes' look at the factors that made Kavanaugh's confirmation — and the Supreme Court's present composition, which clearly favors conservatives — possible. Republicans had been determined to pack the court even before the newly Democrat-controlled Senate blocked President Ronald Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the court in 1987, Calmes writes. Bork was a mentor of the founders of the Federalist Society, a constitutional originalist group whose influence on the American right is partially responsible for the court's right-wing lean today; Calmes' look at the history of the group is captivating.

Dissent is a remarkable work of reportage. Not only does Calmes provide a detailed, well-researched account of Kavanaugh's life, career and ascent to become one of the country's nine most influential judges, she offers fascinating context into the factors behind it. She writes elegantly, but without adornment, resisting the urge to editorialize or make grand pronouncements, and the book is the better for it — it's both a riveting portrait of a particular moment in time as well as of the era that it embodied.

Journalism in the age of Trump has been an endlessly fraught enterprise; Calmes' book is a master class in how to do it well.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub
Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.