Why Brett Kavanaugh’s High School Friends Try to Protect His Reputation — and Theirs

The Intercept
October 4, 2018
(Co-written with Alice Speri)

THERE IS AN underappreciated reason that explains why, apart from Christine Blasey Ford’s remarkable testimony about her summer of 1982 and what a drunken 17-year-old Brett Kavanaugh did to her, almost nothing has been heard about his after-hours conduct from the people who knew Kavanaugh best at Georgetown Preparatory School. The reason for this silence emerges in a little-noticed article written by one of his closest friends from those long-ago days: Mark Judge.

Judge’s article from 2011 starts by recounting a party where he saw many of his old friends from high school. At the time, their graduation was two decades behind them. A woman with whom he left the party observed how close they still were. “She was amazed at the humor, camaraderie and brotherhood of the Prep family,” Judge wrote of his proverbial kin. His companion saw that he loved the lifelong friends that Georgetown Prep had bequeathed him. Their bonds were so strong that when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2009, the first 10 phone calls and emails he received were from Georgetown Prep friends and teachers, he said.

“The place is truly a community and a family,” Judge continued. “The guys become like brothers.”

Judge is witness No. 1 in the FBI’s reopened investigation into whether Kavanaugh sexually assaulted Ford, who has accused Judge of being in the room while the assault happened, watching and laughing. But as senators read the hastily prepared FBI report today, it’s probably naive to expect that Judge or any of the boys-who-are-now-men that really knew Kavanaugh in his alcohol-infused years at Georgetown Prep will divulge information that does not portray him in a glowing light. They have spoken quite publicly about how wonderful he is and how close they are, with the kind of unbreakable bond that is similar to soldiers who have gone to war together. “Academically, athletically and socially, we all became literally almost like brothers,” said Don Urgo Jr. in a July interview with the New York Times. “We had a particular esprit de corps, a zest for life, as a group.”

That’s why the classmate interviews with the FBI will likely not tell the senators as much as the ongoing disclosures coming from journalists doing around-the-clock digging of the sort that Republican leadership has made clear it does not want the FBI to do. The latest revelation came from the Times, which on Tuesday reprinted a 1983 letter Kavanaugh wrote to his high school friends about the house they were renting for “beach week,” suggesting that whoever arrived first should “warn the neighbors that we’re loud, obnoxious drunks with prolific pukers among us.” This directly contradicts the narrative pushed by Kavanaugh and his supporters that he was not a remarkable drinker, and that the drunken sexual assault he’s been accused of could not possibly have happened that way. Echoing this refrain in his Senate testimony last week, Kavanaugh angrily claimed under oath that he never drank to excess and didn’t pass out or forget things he said or did while inebriated.

THE OFFICIAL STORYLINE always had a contradiction that was consistently chipped away at by the strangest of hammers: the 1983 yearbook for Kavanaugh’s class, which was published Wednesday by the Internet Archive. The senior pages for both Kavanaugh and Judge were the first to elicit attention. Their pages had adolescent callouts to each other, such as “Have you boofed yet?” — which Kavanaugh in his testimony contended, unpersuasively, referred to flatulence (it seems far more likely to refer to anal sex or ingesting alcohol or drugs anally). They both also referenced 100 kegs, which Judge described, in a 1997 memoir titled “Wasted,” as the target for their annual beer consumption. Additionally, they both described themselves as alumni of the “Renate” club, which Kavanaugh pretended, in his sworn testimony, was an effort to honor a wonderful female friend of theirs.

Pretty much everyone who has looked at those entries, and at least a dozen other “Renate” references in the yearbook, has concluded it’s a claim by the seniors of some sort of sexual conquest. The woman in question, Renate Schroeder, described it as “horrible, hurtful” when made aware of it by the Times. The yearbook connections between Judge and Kavanaugh provided confirmation that the excessive drinking and sexism of Judge’s social group, as described in “Wasted,” was very much Kavanaugh’s world. (Judge’s book even has a passage in which a “Bart O’Kavanaugh” is described as vomiting and passing out from too much alcohol.)

Kavanaugh’s attempts to portray his high school years as untouched by inappropriate encounters with girls or alcohol, despite what’s suggested in the yearbook and in Judge’s memoir, depend on confirmation — or silence — from the people who would be in a position to know for sure. His closest friends at Georgetown Prep were his fellow football players, including Judge, Urgo, Michael Bidwill, and Phillip Merkle. Just like Kavanaugh, their yearbook pages are sprinkled with references to abundant drinking or sexual conquest. Merkle’s page describes him as “Chairman of the Board” of the Renate club and a member of “Alcoholics Unanimous,” while Bidwill’s and Urgo’s pages include the salutation “100 Kegs or Bust.”

This has been a problem for Kavanaugh. While he insists he didn’t drink to excess, his accusers — in addition to Ford, the FBI is looking into at least one other accusation of sexual assault that is said to have taken place when Kavanaugh was a freshman at Yale University — contend he was staggering drunk when he attacked them. This is why his high school social life is so relevant: Was his behavior back then consistent with the sort of drunken and misogynistic assaults that have been ascribed to him?

IN 2015, KAVANAUGH made a joke about his time at Georgetown Prep that got little notice at the time, but has taken on a haunting amount of resonance in the wake of his nomination to the Supreme Court. He was giving a speech at Catholic University’s law school, reflecting back on his high school years, and he mentioned that, fortunately, they had a good motto: “What happens at Georgetown Prep, stays at Georgetown Prep.” The joke was prefaced by Kavanaugh noting that three of his best friends from high school were attending the speech — Urgo, Bidwill, and Merkle. Kavanaugh expressed happiness with their unofficial motto. “I think that’s been a good thing for all of us,” he said. Video of the event does not show the reaction, in their seats, of his friends.

Kavanaugh didn’t define the scope of “all of us,” but it is apparent — based on Judge’s memoir and yearbook, acting as a Rosetta Stone, as well as calendars for the summer of 1982 that Kavanaugh presented to the Senate — that the football team was the nucleus of his social world and the school’s party scene. “At Prep, football was held in divine reverence,” Judge noted in his memoir, which also described parties where the boys and girls were so inebriated that “if you could breathe and walk at the same time, you could hook up with someone.” Virtually every student who is mentioned on Kavanaugh’s calendars for the summer of 1982 was a member of his football team. (The names of some of them, like Tobin and Squi, have even become cultural touchstones mocked on “Saturday Night Live.”) And many of the senior pages that contain references to what seems to be aggressive partying, even by the standards of their day — including 100 kegs; beach week; throwing up; blackout drinking; Renate; and Ridge Klux Klan, which may be a mashup of a nearby all-girls school, Stone Ridge, and the Ku Klux Klan — belong to members of the varsity football team. As it turns out, the two boys whom Ford recalls being present at the small house party where Kavanaugh allegedly attacked her were also members of the team — Judge and Patrick J. Smyth. (Ford has said that whereas Judge was in the locked room, Smyth was downstairs and unaware of the attack.)

The irony, if that’s the right word, is that the football players who were Kavanaugh’s partners-in-partying have emerged among the most high-profile protectors of his adolescent reputation. On July 9, more than 100 Georgetown Prep alumni, including more than a dozen members of the football team, signed a widely cited letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee that described Kavanaugh as “a good man … eminently qualified to serve as an Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.” These are not ordinary character witnesses – many are wealthy and prominent, including Bidwill, the president of the Arizona Cardinals whose name appears first on the list of signers. (At Georgetown Prep, Bidwill described himself, on his senior page, as “Kegmobile operator.”) Merkle, a senior civil servant in the Justice Department, also signed the letter. Another signatory is Urgo, the president and chief executive of a company that owns and manages dozens of hotels in the U.S. and Canada; his name is on the first page of signatories.

A figure, Denny O’Neal, who bears many of the same characteristics as Urgo, is featured prominently in Judge’s book, “Wasted,” which is described in its first pages as a book about real experiences with some details and names changed. The figure has nine siblings, the same as Urgo, and lived in a mansion with a pool in Potomac, the same as Urgo. O’Neal is portrayed as a prominent member of the close-knit group of football players, and whose family mansion was a frequent assembly point for the boys. “They had a pool, a patio as big as some people’s houses, and a backyard the size of a football field,” Judge wrote. “Their house was so big that ten of us could stay over after a night out. After we got up, Mr. O’Neal would fix a huge bacon and egg breakfast, and we would lounge around exchanging war stories — who got lucky, who didn’t.”

In Judge’s account, O’Neal figured out a way to create fake IDs that were so convincing and so popular that he distributed them to Catholic school students across the Washington area, and he got a job as a bartender in Georgetown by fibbing about his age. But O’Neal, according to Judge’s memoir, “often became violent and antisocial, getting into fights or raging against his uptight parents before passing out.” Judge also describes the boys learning that the school would require them to do community service, with him and O’Neal assigned to a soup kitchen in Washington that echoes Kavanaugh’s statements about his own volunteering. “They know we go out and get tanked every weekend,” O’Neal is quoted as saying in the book, “and they want to make getting up on Sundays hell.” (Jim McCarthy, a public relations expert Urgo has hired to manage press queries relating to Kavanaugh’s nomination, did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment, except to question the objectivity of one of the reporters of this story.)

OF COURSE, IT’S not extraordinary that a group of high school friends remain close later in their lives; it happens all the time, everywhere, in all social classes. But the kind of private school that Kavanaugh attended is known for creating bonds that are particularly strong. The students are drawn from a narrow sector of society — in the case of Jesuit-run Georgetown Prep, from generally wealthy families that are also, mostly, Catholic — and they are consciously instilled by their school with the belief that they are recipients of particular gifts and privileges that most others do not have. “That we are elite, we cannot deny,” the president of Georgetown Prep, the Rev. James Van Dyke, wrote to the school community after the Kavanaugh scandal began. “There is no one here by default.”

Shamus Khan, a sociology professor at Columbia University who wrote the book “Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School” about one of these socio-political hothouses, noted in a recent opinion piece that “to attend these schools is to be told constantly: You’re special, you’re a member of the elect, you have been chosen because of your outstanding qualities and accomplishments.” The formation of this sensibility is intentional and strong, and it has a sort of cousin in the armed forces, with special operations troops who have a similar message of election drummed into them, and who are nonetheless (or as a result) prone to acting beyond the law.

An article by Meagan Day in Jacobin put a finger on one of the secrets that the camaraderie of such groups might serve to protect. She noted that Kavanaugh, in his testimony, did not come off as a particularly brilliant individual; he seemed an angry bully who got most choked up when discussing his high school calendars and talking about his friends back then. He gave the impression, she wrote, “of an unremarkable guy who was born on a conveyor belt to power, without much obligation to distinguish himself from his peers.” She continued, “The powerful aren’t sages, you realize. What they know that the rest don’t know is how to appreciate money and influence. And, most importantly, they know each other.” Day guillotined their brand of loyalty: “The reason these guys cling so tight is because they’re each other’s ticket to the top, and each other’s insurance policy once they get there. Their fidelity, their solidarity, is how they run the world in the absence of remarkable personal qualities.”

Another insight into the difficulty privileged students face when they might break from their adolescent herd, was provided by Leo Marks, who wrote on Facebook about going to a prep school and then to Yale. Marks noted that elite schools honestly try to instill a sense of decency and service, but that they are, “first and foremost, charged with catapulting as many of their graduates as possible into the American power elite.” He added, “I think it’s fair to say that if you’re an alum of such a place, and you’re on the expected path, then you’re either in some degree of agony about the tension between them, or you’ve given up.” When the conflict between those things is most acute — the wish to truly serve the public good contrasting with a desire to remain in the elite group — there is nothing in your expensive education that has prepared you for doing the brave and right thing.

“What I wish these places taught you to think about was the beautiful possibility of throwing it all away,” Marks wrote. “They show you how to build a reputation, but they don’t understand what it’s for. It’s for a moment like this, for fuck’s sake.”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.