Grooming Brett Kavanaugh

From prep school to the Supreme Court was a straight line…and crooked as hell

By Lucian K. Truscott IV


Published September 22, 2018 8:00AM (EDT)

Brett Kavanaugh (AP/Salon)
Brett Kavanaugh (AP/Salon)

Ordinarily, when you think of the word “grooming,” pets come to mind. A poodle, say, or maybe a Westie. Then a Supreme Court seat becomes vacant, and you start to see that, at least in Republican circles, people need grooming, too. People like Brett Kavanaugh, who as legal commentator Jonathan Turley informed us in The Hill “has long been viewed as someone actively groomed for the court by supporters in the Federalist Society and conservative legal circles.” But Turley didn’t stop there. “Short of being raised hydroponically in the basement of the Federalist Society, he could not be more carefully constructed as a nominee in waiting,” Turley continued. “He has, literally, spent decades being developed within conservative circles for this moment.”

Isn’t that something? The idea that this little hothouse flower known as Brett Kavanaugh needed “grooming?” Well, that opinion is quite widespread. On the day Kavanaugh was nominated to the court by Trump, The New York Times informed us, “All of the years of vetting and grooming and lobbying and list-making by conservative legal figures frustrated by Republican appointees who drifted to the left arguably has come down to this moment, when they stand on the precipice of appointing a fifth justice who, they hope, will at last establish a bench firmly committed to their principles.”

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You see? In the past, Republican presidents had appointed people like David Souter and Anthony Kennedy who ended up, in the right-wing’s memorable turn of phrase, as “squishes.” Justices who could not be relied upon to vote the way the conservative establishment wanted them to vote. So they undertook what the Times called “a three-decade project unparalleled in American history to install a reliable conservative majority on the nation’s highest tribunal.”

New York magazine, in a story entitled “In Kavanaugh, Trump found another judge who will kiss the ring,” echoed the Times’ assessment of Kavanaugh’s legal upbringing: “Everything U.S. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh has worked on in this life prepared him for this moment, and there was no way he was going to mess it up. From attending Georgetown Preparatory School with Gorsuch — they graduated two years apart — to later reuniting in the chambers of Justice Kennedy, for whom the two of them served as judicial clerks, destiny and deep fealty to Republican causes groomed Kavanaugh for such a time as this.”

There it is in a nutshell: Destiny. Deep fealty.

Grooming someone like Kavanaugh means nothing less than this: an older man, or more often older men, pick a young man, usually during the time he is being educated and trained for his chosen career, and they take him under their collective wing, and they put him on a path that will lead him where they want him to go, and while they’re doing it, they make sure he will arrive there fortified with the necessary beliefs and most importantly “fealty” that will insure that he does exactly what they want him to do. It’s usually men who are groomed in this manner. It didn’t used to happen with women, although it does now.  But it’s usually a guy thing that involves stuff like prep schools and college fraternities and secret societies such as Skull and Bones.

But grooming isn’t mentoring. It’s deeper and more insidious than that. A mentor might take a young man or young woman under the wing and help them along with career skills and advice. I heard this job came up that you’d be perfect for! Here’s what to keep in mind when you go in for your interview . . .

Grooming is first and foremost selective. Those who are groomed, like Kavanaugh, are chosen — singled out from a pack of similarly inclined candidates for special attention. What really distinguishes those who are groomed from those who aren’t is exclusivity. You’re one of only a few. Remember when we heard Trump would be picking his Supreme Court nominees from lists given him by the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society? Trust me. They weren’t long lists. You can’t groom everyone. Hell, if that were possible, a president like Trump could just pick someone at random for the court. No, grooming is for the special, the chosen ones, the elite, the few.

That’s in good measure how they hook them. See, the thing about being a young man is this: for most of your youthful life, you deal with men who have power over you like your father, or your teacher, or your coach, or your scout leader. They make rules, they set boundaries, and they enforce them. Sure, you learn stuff from these men. You learn “values” from a priest or a preacher. You get the Boy Scout motto and woodsmanship from your scout leader. You get values and heritage and plenty of rules from your father. You get skills and knowledge from teachers.

Then you get a little older, in college, say, and you run across a man who might be one of these male authority figures, like a teacher or a coach or a fraternity alumnus or a rich donor to your college. And this guy singles you out. Everybody else is just a student in the class, or just a member of the frat. But you’re special. You get taken out to dinner, or invited over to the house, or invited on a special trip. And you’re introduced to other men. And those men treat you like you’re special, like you’re different from the rest of the students, the rest of the guys. You’re unique. You are given the idea that you’re one of them.

What’s different is that these guys have something to offer other than rules and boundaries. They have connections. They have access. They can get you backstage. They reek of power, because they know what power is. And they’re going to teach you its secrets — where the power is, how to get close to it, how to learn about it, and ultimately how to get it. How to be powerful like they are.

The thing is, you must do it their way. They make a deal with you: They’ll tell you the secrets of power if you do two things. One, don’t share the secrets with anyone else until you get powerful and it’s your turn to pass the secrets on. And two, use the power the way we tell you to use it.

What’s going on here, right now as I write these words is this: I’m breaking these rules. I’m telling you this secret because I was groomed as a young man, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t take the deal. It happened this way.

When I was a cadet at West Point, every year a powerful man from Washington D.C. came up to the Academy as a kind of guest lecturer in the social science department. He spent a couple of weeks talking with cadets taking a required class in social science, and one by one, he picked out four or five to be groomed.

He was the head of one of the Washington office for one of the major defense firms, and he had developed excellent connections at the Pentagon, which he proceeded to brandish for the chosen few. During my junior year, I was one of his chosen. As I came to discover, you had to have several qualities to be chosen. You had to be good looking. He never picked unattractive cadets. It was preferable if you had a name. As the grandson of a four star general, I had a name. One of the other cadets chosen that year had a father who held a prominent job on Capitol Hill. And you had to be, in his estimation, smart.

What this guy did was invite us, one by one, to have dinner with him at the Officer’s Club. There, over steaks and martinis, he began the grooming. What branch of the service were you going to pick next year? Infantry? Excellent! I know General So-and-So, the head of Infantry Branch in the Pentagon. Why don’t you come down to Washington to visit, and I’ll take you to lunch with him in the Generals’ Mess at the Pentagon. Do you play squash? Great! We’ll play a game of doubles at the Pentagon courts before lunch, and you can meet General Somebody, the deputy chief of staff, another friend of mine. He loves to play squash. He graduated from the Point in ’39. Great guy.

If you were one of the chosen few, you always had a place to stay at his apartment in Washington if you were passing through or just wanted to visit. There were other generals to meet. You were going into the Armor branch? He knew the commanding general out at Fort Knox. He’d get you fixed up with a top assignment as a young Armor lieutenant. What about grad school, after you’ve done a few years’ service? Thought of that? He had connections in the Ivy League. No problem. Ever thought of being a White House Fellow? That could be arranged, too.

I never took him up on his invitation to lunch at the Pentagon with an important general. The following year, my senior year, I made the fateful decision to file some paperwork with the Pentagon seeking to overturn West Point’s long-time regulation which required all cadets to attend church every Sunday morning. The penalty for skipping service was walking punishment tours for hours on The Area with an M-14 rifle on your shoulder.

It’s too long a story to go into in detail here, but suffice to say this was not greeted with enthusiasm by the command structure at West Point or in the Pentagon. Several attempts were made to convince me and three other cadets who also filed paperwork to withdraw our complaints. We were threatened with expulsion, and I was charged with several phony honor charges, among other things. When all of this failed, the powerful man from Washington was sent up to West Point by a senior general in the Pentagon to convince me to stop our efforts to overturn mandatory chapel at West Point.

He took me to dinner at the Officer’s Club. Over steaks and martinis, he made his pitch. Our efforts were going to fail if we persisted. You have to pick your battles, son, and this one is a loser. This is not the hill you want to die on. There is a better way to handle this: you withdraw your complaint and convince the others to do the same, and you’ll be taken care of. You’ll get any assignment you want when you graduate. You’ll be made a general’s aide (a plum assignment) if you want it. You play by the rules, and your career will be watched over, and you’ll be a general by the time you’re 40!

I got into a fairly lengthy back-and-forth with him that night, and later by mail. If I went along with him and withdrew my complaint against mandatory chapel attendance, what was I supposed to do the next time I was confronted with something that was as clearly wrong as this was? What should I do if I went to Vietnam and was ordered to shell a village full of civilians with artillery? (This was something that had already happened to my father as a battalion commander, and his refusal of the order brought an early end to his career) What if I was ordered to trump up phony charges to punish a soldier for something he was doing that was legal, like protesting racial discrimination? (This actually happened to me as a lieutenant just over a year later)

What I realize now is that I was violating the cardinal rule you must follow if you are to be successfully groomed: when you have to chose between principle and power, you know what to do. Chose power.

I lasted a year in the Army before I was kicked out for trying to do something about the incredible problem there was with heroin addiction in the division where I served.

Out of those of us who were chosen by this man, one indeed became a White House Fellow, then served on the National Security Council, then transitioned into the State Department where he eventually became a deputy secretary of state and then an ambassador to one of the NATO countries. Another guy got a masters degree from a prominent program in one of the Ivy League schools, also went into the State Department, ran one of its key departments overseas during our two endless wars in the Middle East, and ended up as an ambassador to an Eastern European ally. The others had similarly successful careers in government.

None of the chosen few became generals. Nobody was really interested. The war inVietnam took care of that career path.

There were 800 young men in my West Point class. 795 of them were not chosen to be groomed by this powerful man. In the early 70’s, while he was serving as a deputy secretary of the Army, I wrote a story that gave me the opportunity to interview him in his office at the Pentagon. It was a grand space. Out the window, we could see the Washington Monument across the Potomac.

After I had questioned him about the issue my story involved, I asked him why he had singled out the four or five guys in my class and was greasing the rails of their careers. I asked him, didn’t he think it was unfair to the rest of the guys in the class, the hundreds he didn’t single out to be groomed for power? I actually said to him, what about the other 795? Didn’t he think what he did was unfair to them?

Tears spilled down his cheeks. He reached into a drawer and pulled out a bottle of pills and shook two of them into his hand and took them with a glass of water. “I just wish I could have helped all of you,” he said, sobbing.

I stood up and walked to the door of his office. “That’s bullshit,” I said to him.

That’s grooming.

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By Lucian K. Truscott IV

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives in rural Pennsylvania and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. You can read his daily columns at and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

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