Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly On ‘The Education of Brett Kavanaugh’ and Its Aftermath

The two reporters sat down with TheWrap to discuss the book’s rollout, the reporting process, and what they see as the larger cultural impact of the Kavanaugh case on history

The Education of Brett Kavanaugh
Photo credit: Porfolio/Penguin (cover), Lorin Klaris (headshots)

“The Education of Brett Kavanaugh,” an investigative book published by the New York Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly last week, has itself become as much a part of the partisan zeitgeist surrounding the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court as the testimonies from Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee last year.

TheWrap’s J. Clara Chan sat down with Pogrebin and Kelly on Thursday to discuss the book’s rollout, the reporting process, and what they see as the larger cultural impact of the Kavanaugh case on history.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

TheWrap: You’ve spent several months working on this book, and this investigation could have gone on forever. At what point did you feel like, alright, we need to sit down and actually write this?

Robin Pogrebin: We kind of divided up the work where Kate took his high school years as well as Christine Blasey Ford, and I had the college years as well as Deborah Ramirez. We had a clear division of labor early on, and so our work was cut out for us on that front.

I think we both felt like we went as far as we could with those stories and sources. The other areas that we wanted to cover were his career, as well as the confirmation process, which we felt also deserved a closer look. So I think that once we had covered those main areas, we felt that we had a critical mass of material to work with. We couldn’t do everything in this book. But those were the things we wanted to accomplish.

TheWrap: The subtitle of the book is “an investigation,” but for me, it’s much more than just an investigation — the book is also trying to crack into what exactly [the Kavanaugh case] means in this specific piece of history. But as you know from the varied responses to the book, it’s such a partisan issue. And sexual assault, in many ways, has become a partisan issue. What does this really mean about the cultural climate that we’re in when there are these two very distinct divides when it comes to evaluating a set of truths and facts?

Pogrebin: This chapter in our history, as well as, frankly, the reception of the book speaks to a moment in our culture where we are intensely divided along partisan lines. Those political allegiances inform people’s perceptions of current events so that, in a way, people’s minds are made up to some extent before they really have given these characters and these events the full benefit of deep inquiry, which we really wanted to bring to this.

We saw that, on the one hand, for example, there are some people who just assumed Brett Kavanaugh was kind of the epitome of the privileged, entitled white man who sort of symbolized everything that’s wrong with the idea that men have an easier time in this culture and that they’re guilty before being proven guilty. And on the one on the other hand, I think there are people who looked at Christine Blasey Ford as an example of #MeToo gone too far, that you could dredge up a charge from 36 years ago that could derail a Supreme Court nomination. So I think what you see here is people reading into these events [with] all sorts of agendas.

What we hoped is that by giving people as many of the facts as we could, as well as perspective from kind of a 360-degree view of things, that perhaps we would not necessarily change minds, but certainly open them.

TheWrap: What would you say to the critics who are quick to jump on, ‘Oh, this is just an anti-Kavanaugh book,’ or ‘This is a pro-Christine [Blasey Ford] book’?

Kelly: We always find it disappointing when people have a sort of contempt prior to investigation. We want, ideally, for people to read the book and then make up their minds as to whether we did a good job or not, or whether they feel that we represented the facts wholesomely enough. Everybody comes to this with their own cultural standpoint, everybody has a worldview, and most people have some sort of political sensibility. So you’re bringing your own perspective, oftentimes, and projecting it onto the facts that we had last year. Now, Robin, and I would argue we have a lot more facts to share with you.

While we do find, for example, Dr. Ford to be credible after all this research, some of the things in the book, I think, will surprise people. We have a view of Justice Kavanaugh as an adult and as a professional being a pretty upstanding figure who has seriously mentored women. And I think in a lot of cases, in our view, it’s not clear that he lied. I think a lot of people feel that he lied repeatedly during his hearings, and that may be the case, [but] we’re not inside his head, so we don’t know for sure. But we spent a lot of time parsing his words and looking at what we understood to be true based on the reporting versus how he framed it, and in a lot of cases, he may have been wrong or he may have been putting a spin on something, but it’s not necessarily obvious that he lied.

Our hope is to come at people in the book gently and say, ‘Here’s what we know. Here’s what we set out to do. We know that you probably have your own impressions of things already, but go on this journey with us. Let us kind of reconstruct the 1980s for you, Georgetown Prep and Yale and the friendships and the cultural and social dynamics of the time. Let us walk you through Judge Kavanaugh’s career and then get to the confirmation hearings and the aftermath of it and then see if you still feel the same way.’

TheWrap: You both had personal connections, in different ways, to the story — the Yale connection [for Pogrebin], the D.C. connection [for Kelly]. Did any point in this entire investigation make you rethink your own experiences of the cultures that you’re talking about in this book?

Pogrebin: It did for me, in terms of reporting the Ramirez experience, because I realized that it made me newly sensitive to the idea that not everyone comes to college with the same kind of armor in knowing how to protect themselves against experiences that might be hurtful or damaging or embarrassing, not necessarily knowing how to navigate social situations, and also, frankly, with just a different degree of confidence and sort of sophistication about some of the situations that you can find yourself in college.

For Brett Kavanaugh, coming from an upper-middle-class background in suburban Maryland, and me coming from the New York City and a private school background, it was more of a seamless transition than it is for other people. And it’s important to be sensitive to the fact that we all don’t start out from the same point in life with the same advantages with the same sense of entitlement.

Kelly: It did cause me to rethink growing up in D.C. and the private school scene a little bit. I went to an all-girls school that was in the same network as Georgetown Prep, which was Kavanaugh’s school, and Holton Arms, which was Blasey Ford’s school. I do remember the alcohol, I remember stories about Beach Week, I remember yearbook shaming, and I know that kids were sexually active, as kids are all over the place. But I did not hear at the time about sexual assault. And based on the conversations I’ve had with people I know since then, I’m quite sure that it was happening.

It’s just a reminder to me that there was not the awareness that we have today, there was not the openness about these experiences, and, unfortunately, a lot of people facing feelings of shame and guilt didn’t report things that happened and they weren’t addressed.

TheWrap: It’s almost like there’s a separate story to be said about how this has made elite prep schools rethink how they’re approaching this kind of conversation with their students and fostering that kind of culture.

Kelly: I know that some of those Washington-area schools are actively grappling with that conversation, including my own alma mater, which is nice to see. If there’s any silver lining here, hopefully it is the idea of promoting this conversation.

Pogrebin: Ramirez has this quote in our book where she talks about this poem that someone sent to her [that] made her think about the concept of justice. She didn’t necessarily set out to derail Kavanaugh’s nomination; she thought it was important to bring this information to light so that it will inform those who are making a decision about his fitness for the court. Even with him having been confirmed, she said there’s so much good that’s come out of this, there’s so much good that’s yet to come — I think what she means by that is having contributed to this conversation and taking these experiences out of the shadows and making sure that people feel less shame around them and expose them and talk about them in an honest way.

TheWrap: Have you heard from Kavanaugh since the publication of the book, or are there any plans to pursue follow-up interviews?

Kelly: We haven’t heard anything from him. We attempted to alert him to all the significant things in the book, approach that with him and his representative in advance, and he hasn’t had any comment.

We would certainly welcome a conversation at any point if he wanted to have it. And yes, we have gotten some additional tips and leads since the book came out and I’m actively looking into a couple of them, so we’ll see where it goes. I don’t think we had any expectation necessarily of continuing on this reporting when the book came out, but we’re not going to ignore any leads that may come our way. We feel like it’s our responsibility to continue pursuing things if they’re brought to our attention.

TheWrap: Many current Democratic presidential candidates and other lawmakers on Twitter have also been calling for Kavanaugh’s impeachment and are using the book as a frame of reference for why Kavanaugh is not fit for the Supreme Court. I know it’s not in your position to make a judgment on whether that is the case, but what’s next after this?

Pogrebin: One of the things that has really struck us in the process of reporting this book is the sense that the judiciary was supposed to be this kind of last branch of government that was non-political, and it’s clearly become so political, dating back to the Bork hearings, and then Clarence Thomas, and then the Republicans blocking any kind of evaluation of Obama’s candidate, Merrick Garland. Perhaps this is a moment where there will be some kind of national reassessment of trying to get back to a [bipartisan] place.

TheWrap: Were you working with New York Times editors when you were doing this book? Or was this a separate editing process entirely?

Pogrebin: This was a separate process entirely. Even though we’re both New York Times reporters, and this did grow out of our New York Times coverage, it was a separate enterprise. That said, we have colleagues that we have run things by.

I think we also lean on our New York Times principles quite a bit in terms of our standards for reporting and sourcing and just how we go about this. We both are sort of steeped in a certain kind of an ethic in terms of approaching a project like this that our day jobs definitely influenced the execution of the book.

TheWrap: Since there was a bit of controversy with the rollout of the book [and an excerpt featured in the Times]: Is there anything that you wish you would have done differently either through the reporting process or the rollout of this?

Kelly: I think we clearly should have had just better and earlier internal communication about what was happening with the element of the excerpt that became so controversial. We really regret the degree to which people felt like they were missing a critical sentence, which is in our book. We never want our readers to feel like they’re being deprived of information they need.

I think we also just need to have, all of us, a high degree of sensitivity about this subject matter and how painful it is for people, regardless of their perspective. Whether they are a #MeToo activist or whether they are part of the Federalist Society, people feel very strongly about these issues of fairness and due process that were raised by the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, and it was just this whirlwind of cross-currents between the #MeToo movement, the atmosphere created by the Trump administration, the recent history of Supreme Court nominations and confirmations, the partisanship in Washington, the toxic dialogue on social media where anything can be said, anything goes, and it just all came together in a pretty ugly way. It’s kind of a sad chapter. But I also think the strong, immediate, and in many cases, uninformed by the actual book reactions that we have seen to the content of the book are emblematic of the issues that we’re writing about more broadly.