This American Life falls for Jeff Flake’s gimmick

Among U.S. senators, perhaps no one bears more responsibility for Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court than Arizona’s Jeff Flake. The retiring Republican senator has made a cottage industry in recent months out of his willingness to break away from Republican Party orthodoxy surrounding President Donald Trump. But he does so in entirely symbolic gestures, nearly always supporting the president's agenda whenever it comes to a vote.

Flake deployed a variation of this tired schtick on September 28, when he inserted himself into Kavanaugh’s confirmation process by saying he would oppose the vote on the Senate floor unless the FBI was given one week to reopen its background investigation into Kavanaugh.

While Flake received some plaudits for attaching this caveat to his vote, there is little evidence that he deserved the praise. Of course the FBI’s process was controlled by the Senate’s GOP leadership and the White House -- not Flake -- and their investigation predictably ended up being a sham, extremely limited in both scope and time. What’s worse: The farce of an investigation provided a pretext for senators who were receiving the strongest pressure to vote no -- most notably Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Flake himself -- to push Kavanaugh over the finish line instead.

This American Life, a weekly public radio program and podcast with an estimated audience of nearly 5 million listeners, published an October 5 episode in which producer Zoe Chace followed and interviewed Flake throughout the confirmation process. Unfortunately, the typically illuminating program fell short in this instance by casting Flake in the softest and most credulous light possible.

The episode glorified the moment when Flake set in motion the sham FBI investigation, with Chace narrating that Flake’s move preserved “the integrity of the process on the Senate Judiciary Committee.” It also celebrated Flake’s all talk, no action approach as something admirable and sorely needed in today’s politics -- even as Flake himself acknowledged to Chace that in his view “he could never have done something like this if he were still running for office”:

ZOE CHACE: Preserving the integrity of the process on the Senate Judiciary Committee is a much less romantic story than the one about two survivors of sexual assault changing a senator's mind at the last second. That's what happened, though.

And finally, that day, the world sees Jeff Flake find a third way. It's something he's been looking for for a long time on a lot of issues -- a way to vote with his Republican colleagues, but stand for certain principles with the Democrats. It's the weirdest niche. But he's a weirdo right now -- a ghost Republican. He doesn't really have a constituency he's speaking for, being anti-Trump but pro- his policies.

He's retiring from the Senate in a few months. As he says, he could never have done something like this if he were still running for office. There's no value to reaching across the aisle, he says. There's no currency for that anymore. If you do that, you'll lose. So there is not much crossing over to the other side ever, by anybody -- which is maybe why, when you do cross over, this is what happens.

Chace also adopted Flake’s claim about Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, saying the senator “found Ford credible and convincing, but he came back, over and over, to the fact that there was nothing corroborating her testimony. No one else could put him in the room that night.”

Setting aside the credulous repetition of the bizarre GOP talking point that Ford is credible and convincing yet also totally mistaken about who attacked her, the claim about corroboration is misleading at best. Ford’s account of being sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh when they were both in high school was corroborated by conversations Ford had in therapy, with her husband, and with friends and other family members prior to his Supreme Court nomination. And the GOP-controlled FBI investigation ensured that no contemporaneous corroboration would be uncovered, despite compelling evidence -- such as an entry on Kavanaugh’s calendar showing that he was drinking with the same people Ford said were at the party during the time frame in which she said the assault occurred. The FBI investigation was also not permitted to independently verify employment records for key witness Mark Judge, an action Ford herself suggested to the Senate Judiciary Committee would help to narrow the time frame of the alleged assault for a more thorough investigation.

More broadly, it would be an understatement to characterize the collegial exchanges between Flake and Chace throughout the segment as a softball interview. In one scene, the two met up in New York City, where Flake was speaking at an event the day after he made his FBI investigation gambit. Chace noted that presumably liberal New Yorkers approached the senator and asked him to pose for pictures, which she took for them. Later the reporter and the senator laughed as she asked, “Do you think they know that you're going to vote for Kavanaugh?”

Chace’s interviews with Flake focused on the optics and political horse race aspects of the Kavanaugh nomination while ignoring real-world impacts. For example, the program didn’t force Flake to explain to women what it means to have yet another justice confirmed to the Supreme Court despite multiple credible allegations of sexual misconduct. Or what it means to have a new Supreme Court justice who is fresh off of delivering a highly unusual and partisan rant before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Or what it means to confirm a nominee who clearly lied under oath numerous times in testimony, something that Flake had told 60 Minutes would be a deal breaker. (Clearly when it was time for him to vote, it wasn’t.)

Instead, the program focused primarily on what it's like to be the senior senator from Arizona, right now. “Jeff Flake's had a rough few years,” Chace reflected after he called for the FBI investigation but before he announced he was voting to confirm Kavanaugh. “They hate him on the right, and he keeps disappointing the left. It feels good, for once, to be popular.”

The segment closed with one last interview after Flake had done what most expected and voted for Kavanaugh. Chace asked, “Do you feel better now? You're kind of back among your people. You had kind of a week with the Democrats celebrating you, but you're back among your people.”

“Do I have people?” Flake responded. “I guess so. I am a man, temporarily, without a party,” he said, laughing.