A year ago on Sunday, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, despite Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that he had sexually assaulted her in high school. That he was able to take a lifetime seat on the highest court following Ford’s tearful, credible account before the Senate Judiciary Committee is still surreal. But Kavanaugh’s rise to Supreme Court Justice was rhetorically aided by one artful, inescapable phrase: “good man.”
Kavanaugh became a “good man” last July when Donald Trump first announced his nomination. The very next day, Mike Pence called him a “good man.” He did it again the following day while explaining that prior to Kavanaugh’s nomination, he had “spent time with this good man and his family.” Time and again, being a “good man” was treated as evidence of Kavanaugh’s fitness, as though it was a singular qualification.
By the end of the summer, as Democrats continued to push back on Kavanaugh’s nomination, the phrase shifted into a signifier of politically-motivated character assassination. Not only was he a “good man,” but a “good man” under attack. “I hope that next week, the over-the-top rhetoric and misrepresentations about Judge Kavanaugh will finally cease,” Senator Orrin Hatch said at the time. “Brett Kavanaugh is a good judge and a good man, and he will make an outstanding Justice.”
In September, the nature of the “good man” narrative again morphed, this time disturbingly and permanently. The New Yorker published its report on as-yet-unnamed Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations of “sexual misconduct” against Kavanaugh. A few days later, the Washington Post published an interview with Ford in which she alleged that Kavanaugh pinned her against a bed, tried to remove her clothing, and stifled her screams during a high school party. Defenders responded by once again blaming Democrats for tarnishing Kavanaugh’s “good man” image, only now the phrase became symbolic, even euphemistic. Calling him a “good man” implied that Ford was a liar—the “bad woman” opposite this “good man”—without having to explicitly say it. And few wanted to explicitly say it and risk the repercussions of such obvious sexism.
As the Washington Post noted at the time, the White House itself showed relative “restraint” shortly after Ford’s allegation was made public, and some speculated that this “strategy had been in deference to the #MeToo movement, or out of fear of contradicting a woman’s memory of sexual assault.” All that changed, though, when Trump posted a series of tweets indirectly challenging Ford’s accusation. In one tweet, he used a variation on the “good man” phrase, writing, “Judge Brett Kavanaugh is a fine man, with an impeccable reputation, who is under assault by radical left wing politicians... .” With this rhetorical sleight of hand, supporters of Kavanaugh could avoid the unseemliness of blatantly attacking Ford.
In none of these cases did anyone ever give a precise definition of “good man.” But it was always fundamentally gendered, sometimes paired with words like “decent” and “honest,” and frequently a preface to discussions of family or work, invoking a vague amalgam of dated, romanticized stereotypes of the “all-American man.” So powerful was the perceived status of “good man” that some argued it could render the accusations irrelevant, even if they were true. “I think she’s mistaken,” said Hatch of Ford, one week after the New Yorker’s story published, before he continued to entertain the possibility that she might not have been mistaken at all. “If that was true, I think it’d be hard for senators to not consider who the judge is today—because that’s the issue. Is this judge a really good man? And he is. And by any measure he is.”
It wasn’t the first time Hatch had minimized a woman’s abuse allegation with the “good man” defense. Earlier that same year, when then-White House staff secretary Rob Porter was accused of domestic abuse, Hatch decried it as an attempt to “sully a man’s good name.” He later apologized to Porter’s ex-wives.
Not infrequently, it was women who did the “good man” dirty work. Just two days after the allegations emerged, 65 women who knew Kavanaugh in high school signed a letter claiming that Kavanaugh “has behaved honorably and treated women with respect” and, repetitiously, “always treated women with decency and respect.” He has, they concluded, “always been a good person.” Here, they didn’t have to identify him as a good man, having already identified themselves as women and underscored his behavior with women; the message was clear.
After Deborah Ramirez came forward with her accusation that in college Kavanaugh had exposed himself at a party and forced her to touch his penis, White House spokesperson Kerri Kupec said in a statement that the allegations were part of “a coordinated smear campaign by the Democrats designed to tear down a good man.” Of course, I could instead argue that Kavanaugh supporters’ deployment of the “good man” defense was a coordinated and aspirationally covert way to undermine Ford and, now, Ramirez.
Sometimes, defenders upped the woman quotient, casting Kavanaugh as a “good” husband and father of daughters. Days after Ford’s allegations broke, Pam Bondi, former Florida attorney general—and, you might notice, a woman—said on Fox’s Hannity: “This is a horrible preposterous attempt to discredit a good man,” she said. “This [is] a good man with a wife and two young daughters.” Days later, in another interview, she said, “This is a good man and thank goodness he has a strong wife and it’s a shame that his daughters even have to endure this.” The women in his life were deployed as character witnesses by their very existence.
Then there was Lindsey Graham, who preferred to hyperbolically channel women’s voices: “I think that every woman who’s ever known Brett Kavanaugh has vouched for him being a good guy,” he said.
Again and again, these “good man” defenders forwarded tired myths about men who perpetrate sexual assault: that they are necessarily shadowy, asocial figures lurking in the bushes as opposed to well-liked husbands, fathers, and judges. Women especially testified to his having treated them with “decency and respect,” as though that were proof that he had always done so with every woman he had ever encountered. Here, Kavanaugh’s defenders got to avoid the unpleasant truth that even “bad men” are “good men” to some people.
Regardless, the “good man” assessment took hold. So much so that Kavanaugh himself deployed this rhetorical technique when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Speaking of several women friends from college who had vouched for his character, he said, “One of those women friends from college, a self-described liberal and feminist, sent me a text last night that said, ‘Deep breaths, you’re a good man, a good man, a good man,’” he said in his opening statements. He added, “This has destroyed my family and my good name. A good name built up through decades of very hard work and public service at the highest levels of the American government.”
Good, good, good, good. Even after Ford’s tearful testimony, despite her alleging that she was “100 percent” certain Kavanaugh had been the one to pin her down and attempt to rape her, the “good man” parade continued. Hatch insisted: “Good man.” Trump insisted: “Good man.” McConnell: “Good man.” Even as Lisa Murkowski explained that she had broken with her party to vote against Kavanaugh’s confirmation, worried that it might undermine the public’s faith in the judicial process, still she had to insist: “I believe Brett Kavanaugh’s a good man.”
After he was confirmed, the “good man” narrative continued, but with less amplification, because it had served its purpose: credentialing Kavanaugh, while indirectly undermining his accusers, in order to pave the way for his seat on the Supreme Court. Sometimes, the phrase wasn’t spoken at all, but the framework it left behind was apparent: discrediting the victim while signaling otherwise. Sen. Susan Collins repeatedly made the perplexing argument that Ford had been assaulted, but that Kavanaugh—whom she called “an exemplary public servant, judge, teacher, coach, husband, and father”—had not been the assailant.
It was only when the New York Times published an article this month featuring a previously unreported allegation of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh that the phrase was dusted off and given some amplification. On September 16, exactly a year after the Washington Post published its interview with Christine Blasey Ford, Trump tweeted, quoting a guest on Fox & Friends, “What’s happening to Justice Kavanaugh is a disgrace. This guy is not a good man, he is a great man.”
Later that evening at a political rally, it seemed Trump had latched onto this new phrase: “He’s a great man, by the way,” he said. “Great talent, a great, brilliant man, Brett Kavanaugh.”