Give him this: Jeff Flake listened. He changed. Few senators would have flown into the face of his party and president.
The tall Arizona senator's face was flushed. He was the central figure in a drama afoot before the Judiciary Committee voted on Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court.
As a Republican, it was no sweat to follow the party line for President Donald Trump's nominee. Republicans are the best team players in America. But that day, the fall morning air felt different. The 53-year-old Supreme Court justice nominee was sailing into a storm.
Perhaps John McCain's ghost was there. The famed late senator from Arizona, the Republican contrarian, influenced Flake, 55, a youngster in the aged Senate. McCain's memory may have empowered Flake to do what he did that day.
I was in the room where it happened, in the Senate's staid Dirksen building, where the wood-paneled walls felt like a stage set for a Eugene O'Neill play.
At the press table, we heard Flake would vote for Kavanaugh, whose melodrama the day before was a bit much.
Poor man, he cried over his old calendar, which seemed to corroborate Christine Blasey Ford's story of his sexual assault on a summer night when they were each in private schools in Bethesda, Maryland, a posh Washington suburb. They were from rock-ribbed Republican families. They were acquaintances, she said, before she told her narrative of narrowly escaping rape while being choked by "Brett."
Flake and the panel had heard each witness, speaking in direct contradiction, for seven hours in a daylong hearing.
Some senators were struck by the sullen looks and swagger Kavanaugh showed. California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat, said she'd never seen a nominee act so cavalier in 25 years. Kavanaugh bragged about his Yale degrees — college and law school. He made outlandish claims about revenge on behalf of the Clintons.
We the American people met the real Brett Kavanaugh that day. The unvarnished version. As in an O'Neill tragedy, destructive drinking haunts the plot. Reports of Kavanaugh's heavy drinking have poured into the committee.
Yet still the folksy chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, was set to go ahead with the committee vote after that. So was Orrin Hatch of Utah, his fellow Republican octogenarian, who knows Kavanaugh well. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas counts Kavanaugh as a good friend. It's the way of the walled world.
O'Neill's spirit was somewhere in the room. His favorite theme was a family — or a country, in this case — being "ripped apart at the seams," in Flake's words.
Theatrical Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., had to be the one to thunder at Democrats. Nobody paid much mind.
But it was not business as usual. Flake met a moment of conscience as he made his way to Dirksen for the committee vote.
In an elevator, two women confronted him and seized the moment to weep with rage about silencing sexual assault, if the senator backed Kavanaugh. Their searing plea turned him. He didn't shut the door or tell them to get lost. Senators have their own elevators, so they don't deal with the public or protestors.
Nonetheless, Flake listened. He "hear-ed" them, as Abraham Lincoln would say. The women's voices were a catalyst.
To break the room's suspense, Flake spoke first. He said he'd vote to send the nominee to the floor, on the condition of an FBI investigation into sexual assault accusations, to last a week. The row of Democrats had called for an FBI investigation to probe Kavanaugh's history before the vote was rushed to the floor.
What artful political compromise, seldom seen lately. The tension broke, as a playwright would have it. Republicans accepted the deal. Maybe they agreed Trump's argumentative nominee needed more vetting.
Whether the FBI director, Christopher Wray, will recuse himself is unlikely. Like Kavanaugh, he holds two Yale degrees, college and law school, a year apart. For all we know, they were drinking buddies. It's a world of privilege.
Flake is not running for re-election. But he may be running for president. In a revealing drama, he showed true character at a turning point.
To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit Creators.com.
Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore