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Upper School Uncle Reflects On Role In Kavanaugh Debate

James Roche was Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s roommate for their first year at Yale University. He was featured in The New Yorker article that contained the allegations againt Kavanaugh by Deborah Ramirez, Mr. Roche’s friend and Yale classmate. He has since issued a public statement, appeared in interviews with Anderson Cooper and with John Berman on CNN, and written an Op/Ed for Slate magazine. His refrain throughout has been an emphasis on Kavanaugh’s heavy drinking, Kavanaugh’s dishonesty at his Senate hearing, and Ramirez’s honesty. On the day before Kavanaugh was confirmed, Mr. Roche fielded questions from Sam Klein Roche ’19, his nephew, on behalf of the school community.

What did you have to weigh in your decision to come forward about your experience with Judge Kavanaugh? 

There are real risks to speaking out publicly, especially against a potential Supreme Court Justice who was personally selected by a president who has autocratic tendencies and who punishes people who resist him. I have a very good friend who has information related to Kavanaugh that he shared anonymously [and] that would have been much more powerful if he put his name on it. He told me, “To go public with this information, I would have to get clearance from my corporate counsel, or I would be fired. They would never approve of this. There is too much risk and no benefit to the company.” 

I was concerned about three things when I considered allowing my name to be published in The New Yorker story: professional reputation, obligation to my company and its investors, and personal relationships.

Professional reputation is a complicated one. As an entrepreneur, I ran very little risk of removal by my investors or board of directors. But sales, business relationships, and career advancement often hinge on another person saying yes or no. People are very polarized these days, and they’re passionate. They are not thinking, “Is it OK to lie? What is corruption? Do I want to be aligned with Russia and North Korea or England and Canada?” They are simply expressing, “I am with Trump,” or “I am against Trump.” Standing up and identifying yourself as one or the other has a cost. But as soon as you start talking about it and supporting your side publicly, you jump into another category.

Obligation to the company is simpler. As the CEO of a company, you have one explicit job: to do everything you can that will help and nothing that will harm [and]  providing a reasonable return for your investors. The cold truth is that most companies benefit, at least in the short run, from the positions taken by the current administration. My company makes software that will be used by the government and by large-scale real estate investors and developers who tend to be supportive of Trump and Kavanaugh. Should [my] public position against Kavanaugh result in a lost business opportunity or alienating a potential investor, this contradicts my responsibilities as a CEO.

The last one is personal relationships. There are people in my family who, I suspect, if we ever talk again—our relationship will never fully recover. 

I left out a category, and it’s an important one: personal physical risk. In the case of this Supreme Court decision, the fate of Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose hangs in the balance. There are people who believe that abortion is tantamount to murdering infants. They are highly passionate, they are organized, and they have proven to been violent. For decades they have been waiting for the opportunity to stop what they believe to be the legal killing of babies. Now they are on the edge of that happening. [My] standing up and putting that at risk, realistically, is very dangerous. 

Now that your daughter is going into her first year of college, how do you expect her experience to be different to that of girls her age in the ’80s?

It’s a topic that’s worth a lot of debate. How do men act, and how do women act, how has that changed, and how should it change? When your father and I went to college, it was a culture of conquest. Men were hunters; women were prey and “real men” went out and tried to find a pretty girl, “pick her up,” and “close the deal.” The game was to convince a girl to lower her defenses and allow a “hookup.” Most men were respectful or shy or both, and if a girl showed no interest, resisted, or said no, that was the end of it. Others were more aggressive, less honorable, or were willing to resort to criminal behavior to “get the girl.” 

What was OK was blurred by popular media. In the movie Animal House, there is a scene where a woman is passed out and a man is standing above her having a debate with the angel and devil on his shoulders about whether he should have sex with her. It was a very popular movie, and the scene was considered very funny. It is hard to imagine that in a movie now. 

Today there is still too much drinking. It seems that “going out” is still equated with drinking—drinking fast and drinking volume. But I think boys are much clearer on the lines. Everybody knows that if two guys take a girl who is drunk into a room and cover her mouth so that she cannot scream as they try to remove her clothes, they’re going to jail. We know where the bright lines are. But if you are with a girl, and she has indicated interest, and you go to a room, and you’ve both had a few drinks, and you are [doing] what you think is playfully going back and forth, I think that line has moved. More guys, not all, know that your opportunity for pressing is very limited, if not nonexistent. Most guys understand that there are consequences to pushing, that it’s not OK.

How do you plan to prepare your daughter for the culture that awaits her when she goes to college next fall?

My advice to her is, just remember that there are still people out there who are monsters. And the worst monsters are those who get you to believe that they aren’t. So be careful. Some guys are great. Some guys can be great or can be bad. Some guys are just flat-out bad. Keep your guard up. Don’t drink a drink that you didn’t pour for yourself, and don’t drink much. A beer or two is OK; more is asking for trouble. 

We spend a lot of time with our daughters encouraging them to be strong. We don’t tell them to go out and find a nice guy, as parents did in past generations. We don’t say or imply that they are incomplete unless they have a boyfriend. We teach them that they are free to do what they think is right but that they get to choose.

You say that now boys understand that it’s not OK to do X, Y, and Z, but don’t you think that Kavanaugh being credibly accused and then confirmed will send a conflicting message?

I am very curious to see how that works out. I am an optimist by nature. I think that we understand that it was not OK to do the things that he is accused of doing and that what you do may come back, even many years later. His confirmation does confuse things a bit. I hope that it galvanizes your generation. If something happens to you, report it. Tell people. And be really, really clear that there are repercussions if you act badly.

Was there any point that, as Kavanaugh’s roommate, you pushed back on his behavior toward women, behavior that you labeled as “rude” on CNN? What obligation do boys have to push back on other boys?

I never saw Brett sexually abuse or be belligerent or aggressive directly to a woman. I heard him saying things about women that were uncomfortable and wrong. Should I have stood up in that moment and said, “Pump the breaks, buddy?” Yes, definitely. But I didn’t, and I regret it.

The best posture to take is not aggressively sanctimonious. Nobody listens to that—it just turns people off. [Try] if you can [to] approach the incident and the individual as a good person who is making a mistake rather than a bad person who needs to be stopped.

To what extent do you think adults should be accountable for behavior they exhibit in high school and college decades earlier?

They should be held proportionally accountable, and time should be a factor. If a man raped a woman 35 years ago, he should be treated as a rapist. If there were mitigating factors, whatever they might be, they should be considered. He should go through the normal legal process. If he is not convicted, we accept that because that is how the rule of law works.

I don’t think Brett Kavanaugh should have been disqualified from the Supreme Court because 35 years ago he drank too much or blacked out or even was sexually pushy, as long as it was not rape. If he had come out and said either, “I did this, and I apologize,” or “I just don’t remember, but I do not believe that I did the things or would have done these things regardless of how many drinks I had,” it probably would have helped him out. Better yet, he should have said, “I recognize that this woman is in a lot of pain, and to the extent I was responsible, I am deeply sorry.”

But, if a person has demonstrated a lack of judgment and that they are incapable of being truthful, should they be put into a position where their judgment and truthfulness are fundamental to the job? You have to think very seriously about that.                                    

 

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