Ethics & Public Policy Center

A “Penchant” for Innuendo

Published in City Journal on September 10, 2018


New York Times editorial has informed us, in passing, that Judge Brett Kavanaugh has a “penchant for coaching girls’ basketball.” The editorial does not dwell upon this “penchant.” Its main business is to inform us that Kavanaugh “can’t be trusted” on judicial matters (Roe v. Wade most conspicuously) and to advise the Senate to reject his nomination for the Supreme Court.

It’s worth pausing for a moment, though, to admire the phrase, “his penchant for coaching girls’ basketball,” and to notice the teeming little world of artfully scurrilous subliminals that it sets in motion.

So skilled was Kavanaugh at dodging and weaving, the Times editorialist opines—meaning that Kavanaugh was lying—that after several days of Senate hearings, all that the American people could know for certain about the nominee was that he had this “penchant.” The writer could have shortened and simplified the basketball sentence—and, in doing so, made an honest sentence of it—by deleting “penchant” and saying that just about all that we came to know from the hearings is that “Judge Kavanaugh coaches girls’ basketball.” If the Times had been feeling especially fair-minded, it might have gone on to mention that the reason that Kavanaugh coaches girls’ teams is that his two young daughters play on the teams. A good editor might have made those fixes. Instead, the Times managed to suggest, by the flicker of a phrase (if you blinked, you missed it) that Kavanaugh might be something altogether different from the good parent that he seems; that he might, in fact, be something along the lines of a pervert.

These micro-memes are subtle. The writer managed to open the door, by the deftest sleight of hand, upon a deeply problematic possibility. (“Problematic” is the New York Times editorial board’s word for, “This is either racist or sexist or intolerably heteronormative, and, in any case, it stinks on ice, and when we get around to it, we will give it both barrels of our indignation.”)

If you simply “coach basketball,” that’s one thing; but if you have a penchant for coaching basketball—girls’ basketball, yet—that’s something different. A penchant is an urgeand clinically speaking, it may have a touch of compulsion in it. A judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Kavanaugh is a busy man. How is it that such an important man habitually finds the time to coach little girls on a basketball court? Well, you see, he has this “penchant.”

The dictionary tells us that a penchant is “a definite liking, a strong inclination.” The word is a nice way of getting at something darker. Let’s call a spade a spade. We are not here to be nice when so much is at stake. Perhaps the future of the country hangs in the balance with the Kavanaugh nomination, as the Times’s Paul Krugman suggests.

To review: Kavanaugh feels compelled (for what reason, we cannot say) to coach little girls in basketball—little girls running around in shorts, little girls changing in locker rooms, dressing and undressing themselves. A concerned parent understands the issues of trust that come into play here, and the terrible potential for abuse: the virtual certainty of it. Where there’s smoke, there’s an arsonist.

In a moment, the editorialist hints, we will get to the reasons why Kavanaugh is not to be trusted with the law of the land; but let’s spare a second to entertain the reader’s prurience with the disturbing possibility that Kavanaugh cannot be trusted where this other court—the one for girls’ basketball—is concerned. There is much that we do not know about the man. There are unanswered questions.

My favorite limerick—elegantly risqué—begins, “A vice both obscure and unsavory/ Keeps the bishop of London in slavery.” The Times’s line, “his penchant for coaching girls’ basketball,” would be wonderfully weird and promising as the setup for a limerick. Too bad it doesn’t scan. I’ll work on it anyway.

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