At Yale, Kavanaugh stayed out of debates at a time of many
It was the 1980s at Yale University, and Brett Kavanaugh’s classmates were protesting South Africa’s apartheid system, rallying for gay rights and backing dining hall workers in a labor dispute.
But friends and acquaintances say the future Supreme Court nominee seemed more interested in battles on the basketball court than politically charged debates.
“If you had asked him back then: ‘You have the option of becoming a Supreme Court justice or having a six-year career in the NBA,’ I think he would have picked the NBA,” said Rusty Sullivan, a fellow sportswriter at the college paper.
In some ways, Kavanaugh was like many Yale students of his time: a product of a high-powered East Coast prep school and headed for law school after graduating in 1987. Interviews with more than a dozen people who knew him in college and Yale Law School draw a portrait of a serious, but not showy student and sports lover whose drive and competitiveness helped him both on the court and in the classroom.
But Kavanaugh’s Yale experience wasn’t entirely typical.
He pledged a party-hearty — for Yale — fraternity at a time when Greek life was minimal there. He also joined an all-male “senior society,” a campus group that selects a handful of students each year for private socializing.
Kavanaugh, who grew up in suburban Bethesda, Maryland, has said he came to realize he was headed down a different philosophical path than many of his classmates. At Yale Law, he repeatedly found himself siding with conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, he recalled in a speech last year to the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
“That often meant, in the Yale Law School environment of the time that I stood alone. Some things don’t change,” said Kavanaugh.
The White House declined to comment for this story. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to begin hearings on the nomination Tuesday.
Classmates recall Kavanaugh was not outspoken about his views or inclined to take sides in campus controversies.
To friends, Kavanaugh perhaps stood out most for not showcasing himself as a standout on a campus where many students aren’t shy about their intellect and ambition.
“You meet people who say, ‘I’m going to be a senator someday,’” but Kavanaugh wasn’t one of them, says Chris Munnelly, one of his Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity brothers.
Kavanaugh tried out for the varsity basketball team and didn’t make the cut. He went on to play two years on the JV, plus intramural basketball, football and softball and pickup hoops.
He also wrote about basketball and other sports for the Yale Daily News.
Still, Kavanaugh’s time at Yale wasn’t all sports and studying. He made it to his share of campus parties, friends said, and joined social circles heavy on athletes, tradition and male bonding.
Fraternities had dwindled at Yale in the 1960s, and no frat houses remained on campus by the time Kavanaugh arrived in fall 1983. But fraternities would begin growing again during his Yale years.
Members say Kavanaugh could hold his own in meetings where guys jostled to crack the funniest joke, but he also was thoughtful toward younger members.
With no house at the time, DKE brothers met in lounges on campus, and then-members describe it as more like a student club than “Animal House.”
But it also made a frat-style social splash, holding a toga party, a beer-drinking competition, and dispatching pledges it called “buttholes” around campus to wave a flag consisting of women’s underwear, sing while standing on dining-hall tables and race around trying to capture one of the brothers, according to Yale Daily News articles and photos from the time.
Tom Virgulto, a fellow DKE member, says the initiation antics were “never anything dangerous or offensive ... more laughing at yourself.”
The year after Kavanaugh graduated, the fraternity was embroiled in racial controversy after a black sophomore said he was barred from a party at DKE’s new off-campus house because of his race.
The fraternity’s then-president said the party was simply overcrowded but acknowledged a member had told the visitor he could “call the NAACP” about it, according to a Yale Daily News story then. DKE apologized and the student didn’t make a formal complaint.
Kavanaugh also joined an all-male senior society, Truth and Courage.
Unlike other societies — such as Skull and Bones — membership wasn’t exactly a secret: Kavanaugh listed it in his yearbook.
The group of mostly athletes would meet for dinner or a drink at a bar, said Dwyane Oxley, a pal and member the year before Kavanaugh.
Kavanaugh has kept up with his undergraduate class, participating last year in a 30th reunion panel discussion on free speech, race and “living history” at Yale.
He remains particularly close to his law school housemates, who get together once a year. And being a Supreme Court nominee doesn’t give him a free pass to skip this year’s trip, friends say.
“He’s a little notorious for showing up for 24 hours or less but has sometimes gone to great lengths to do that,” said one of the housemates, Jim Brochin. “So I’m guessing that he’ll make it.”
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