The Real Spartacus Moment: How The Kavanaugh Hearing Played Out A Familiar Tale Of Ambition and Hubris

Tod_des_Spartacus_by_Hermann_Vogel.jpgBelow is my column in The Hill newspaper on the controversial declaration of Sen. Cory Booker (D, NJ) that he was taking his “Spartacus” stand in releasing a restricted, non-public document regardless of the consequences. Well, it was not quite a dramatic as suggested since the document was in fact already public.   As should come as no surprise to many of you who know my love for military history, I did however appreciate the reference.

Here is the column:

Cory_Booker,_official_portrait,_114th_CongressIt was a moment that would have made actor Kirk Douglas blush. During the hearings into the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, Cory Booker (D-N.J.) announced that he would defy the Senate Judiciary Committee by releasing a nonpublic “committee confidential” document, regardless of the consequences. “This is about the closest I’ll probably ever have in my life to an ‘I am Spartacus’ moment,” he declared, recalling the memorable line spoken by Douglas in the 1960 film.

First, and foremost, the key to having a “Spartacus moment” is not to declare your own Spartacus moment. Second, you actually have to expose yourself to a lethal threat. It turned out that the document in question already had been released and Booker was informed that it was public before the hearing. However, Booker was right on one point.

The hearing procedures were questionable and this really was a Spartacus moment. It was just not the one Booker thought it was. He and other Senate Democrats have had a legitimate gripe about the unusually high percentage of material withheld from review and the unilateral use of “committee confidential” markings to control documents. It is troubling to have a largely unknown private lawyer removing hundreds of thousands of documents based on a privilege assertion that has not actually been formally made by the White House.

Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) also had a good point about the Democrats failing to ask for the release of documents and possibly engineering the confrontation in open committee. Yet, in the end, Democrats had the better case about the hearings being substantially different from past hearings in the method and the scope of withheld material. If Democrats had the better argument, it was lost in the atmospherics of the hearing. Indeed, for those lost in the theatrics, the story of Spartacus is instructive as suggested by Booker.

862px-Marcus_Licinius_Crassus_LouvrePompejus(cropped)In history, gladiator turned rebel Spartacus was pursued by not one but two Roman senators turned generals, Marcus Licinius Crassus (left) and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (right), who wanted to be the next consul of Rome. The point of the war was not just defeating Spartacus and his gladiator army but to be the one credited with defeating him. Crassus succeeded and proclaimed his victory at Capua. Magnus, however, claimed the honor by reaching Rome first, illustrating the danger of Crassus stopping to crucify 6,000 prisoners on the road to Rome as a statement.

The Kavanaugh hearings were like watching a contest to be consul of Rome. Booker and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who sat next to each other, are viewed as leading contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Like their Roman predecessors, they knew that whoever slayed or injured Kavanaugh would be a celebrated Democratic hero. Harris effectively accused Kavanaugh of perjury, collaboration against special counsel Robert Mueller, and other unsupported misdeeds. Not to be outdone, Booker jumped up to declare himself Spartacus.

The problem is that someone actually did kill Spartacus. In this case, Kavanaugh walked from the hearing on his own power with a presumed Senate majority of support. It is certainly true that Republicans prevented access to information that might have undermined him, but neither Booker nor Harris made a convincing claim as future consul of the Democratic Party. One moment, however, did leave Booker looking a bit like a consul wannabe. In an uncharacteristic move for the usually mild mannered senator, Booker had a confrontation with reporter Byron Tau, who asked if his Spartacus moment was a political stunt. Tau said Booker told him he was “violating the Constitution by being in his way.”

That comment was unlikely meant as a real threat, as it is neither within the character nor authority of the senator. Presumably, Booker was referring to the fact that he was on his way to a vote and the speech and debate clause under Article I states that members of both Houses of Congress “shall not be questioned in any other place” when going to and from Congress. However, this is meant to deter the government, not reporters, which is why there is an exception case of “treason, felony and breach of the peace.” Given the grilling over the uncertain constitutional interpretations of Kavanaugh and support of imperial presidential authority, it was a sharply discordant moment. If you are Spartacus, you should not be denouncing reporters like a Roman consul.

Booker later went on television, trying to reinforce his Spartacus bona fides. He struggled to establish that he was actually breaking Senate rules by releasing other documents. He has now released more than 20 documents uncleared by the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was like claiming to be a retroactive Spartacus after the battle. That could subject Booker to admonishment after a Senate Ethics Committee investigation, still far short of staging crucifixions between on the way to Rome.

Putting all of the theatrics aside, the Kavanaugh hearings left a troubling and damaging precedent for a process that already lacked substantive content. I have been a critic for years of the modern confirmation hearing, which is largely about senators rather than nominees. The hearings drained what little substance remained in the process. The unilateral denial of documents and theatrics of the opposition left the hearings as little more than a stunt by both parties. There was not a Spartacus to be found but, instead, an overabundance of would be Roman consuls.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

181 thoughts on “The Real Spartacus Moment: How The Kavanaugh Hearing Played Out A Familiar Tale Of Ambition and Hubris”

  1. “Spartacus Back Story
    What the media missed and millennials need to know.

    September 14, 2018

    “This is about the closest I’ll probably ever have in my life to an ‘I am Spartacus’ moment,” New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker famously proclaimed during the Kavanaugh hearings. Since the documents he threatened to expose were already public, Booker’s gambit was something of a bust. On the other hand, as an election approaches, the senator’s reference is worth exploring.

    Even Fox News showed footage from the 1960 movie Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas, Lawrence Olivier and Jean Simmons, in which the Romans threaten to crucify rebellious slaves unless Spartacus identifies himself. The others then heroically proclaim “I am Spartacus.” It was a dramatic moment, but nobody in the establishment media explained the back story.

    The movie Booker cited is based on the 1951 novel Spartacus by Howard Fast, a Communist pisseur d’encre whom Time magazine had dubbed “Big Brother’s U.S. pen pal.” In 1953, Fast won the Stalin Peace Prize, the only American to win the award other than Paul Robeson, a black American Communist who spent his life defending all-white Soviet dictatorships.

    Stalin died in 1953 and three years later, Soviet boss Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes and mass atrocities to the Soviet Communist Party’s 20th Congress. The revelation devastated many American Communists and motivated Howard Fast to write The Naked God: The Writer and the Communist Party, released in 1957.

    Khrushchev’s revelations, Fast wrote, “itemizes a record of barbarism and paranoiac bloodlust that will be a lasting and shameful memory to civilized man.” Communism is not social science but “naked terror, awful brutality and frightening ignorance.” Fast denounced “Stalin and the collection of hangmen and murderers around him” and charged that the Communist Party is “based on pseudo-religious cant, cemented with neurotic fear and parading ritualistic magic as a substitute for reason.” And the Spartacus scribe wasn’t done.

    The only people who resisted the revelation of Stalin’s crimes, Fast wrote, were “the mental revolutionaries, the parlor pinks, the living-room warriors, the mink coated allies of the working class.” These were “Sick people who had seen no death than a painted corpse in a funeral parlor, no other violence than an auto crash – these people lusted for an Armageddon their mad dreams had promised them.”

    The Naked God may have been the most devastating anti-Communist book since the The God That Failed (1949), with accounts from former Communists including Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon) and Richard Wright (Native Son, Black Boy). Fast’s book did not get the attention it deserved but his best-selling Spartacus attracted attention from Hollywood, at the time cranking out biblical epics like The Robe, David and Bathsheba, and Ben Hur.

    The Spartacus screenwriter was Dalton Trumbo, who joined the Communist Party during the Stalin-Hitler Pact, when many others left, and remained in the Party after the Khrushchev revelations. Trumbo hated Fast’s Naked God but he wasn’t going to pass up a big payday. And since Trumbo had been one of the famed Hollywood Ten, Spartacus remains a classic on the big screen of the left, which duly consigned The Naked God to the forbidden list.

    While some fled the Communist Party after 1956 many others remained and the Soviets continued to run candidates in American elections. In 1976 their candidate for president was Gus Hall, an old-line Stalinist, with Jarvis Tyner for vice president. College student John Brennan voted for Gus Hall and incredibly enough, only four years later in 1980 Brennan gained employment at the CIA, which he headed under POTUS 44.

    One of those Americans who remained faithful to Communism and the Soviet Union was Angela Davis. In 1979 Davis won the Lenin Peace Prize, her primary for the Communist ticket in 1980, with Davis for vice president under Hall. The same duo lost to Reagan and Bush in 1984, and thereafter the Communist Party USA declined to run candidates and urged their supporters to vote for the Democratic Party.

    In 1988, American Bernie Sanders spent his honeymoon in the Soviet Union, where the gulags were still functioning and Soviet bosses torturing political prisoners in psychiatric hospitals. If Hillary Clinton had not rigged the primaries, Sanders would have been the Democrats’ candidate in 2016.

    Cory Booker wants to be the candidate in 2020, and his bid for a “Spartacus moment” suggests that he knows the Old Left back story. For their part, Democrats such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cynthia Nixon and Andrew Gillum, like their media supporters, show little if any familiarity with The Naked God, The God That Failed, and The Road to Serfdom.

    On every hand they rise crying “I am socialist!” thereby confirming ignorance of the actual record. Howard Fast, who died in 2003, knew what socialism was all about. So did Milan Kundera, who wrote, “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

    Candidates can’t recall what they never knew in the first place. And now abide anger, hatred and ignorance, but the greatest of these is ignorance.” __Billingsly

  2. Some good economic news announced:

    • President Trump has turned around many of the flat economic trends experienced under the Obama Administration.
    • Under President Trump, small business optimism has soared relative to previous trends.
    • In a recent National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) survey, 32 percent of small businesses said now is a good time to expand, compared to only 11 percent in NFIB’s November 2016 survey.
    • Business investment was on a downward trend prior to President Trump taking office, and is now up by more than $300 billion over the 2016 trend.
    • Orders and shipments of capital goods used by businesses to make consumer products were on a downward trend before President Trump’s election and have jumped up sharply since.
    • Business applications were on a flat trend prior to President Trump taking office and have surged upwards since.
    • The number of prime-age workers re-entering the workforce has significantly increased
    • GDP growth rose to 4.2 percent in the second quarter of 2018, putting the economy on track to grow by more than 3 percent over the calendar year.
    • More than 3.5 million jobs have been created since President Trump took office, and total job openings have surpassed the number of job seekers for the first time on record.
    • The unemployment rate remained at 3.9 percent in August 2018, bringing the rate below 4 percent for the fourth time this year and only the ninth time since 1970 that has occurred.
    • Manufacturer optimism has reached its highest level on record, according to a recent survey.

    1. there is a lot of good news but there are asset bubbles yet which can burst, and then they will blame it all on trump. just give it some time, markets go down not just up.

      if it all turns and comes back negative right before election, don’t be surprised

      1. Mr. Kurtz, stocks and the economy are cyclical but I don’t think we will see anything major until after the midterms and when that downturn occurs is anyone’s guess (I think we still have a long positive stretch ahead), though we may see a downward blip in the economy if Democrats take control of the House. Trump has done a fabulous job on the economy even though Obama now professes it was he who made a booming economy possible. In a way that is true. He made the recession far worse than it should have been. People were out of work for 2-3 times longer than average after a recession and the GDP took a much longer time than normal to recover. That opened the ability for the Trump administration to show a much stronger rebound because the Obama administration left so much to be desired. In fact, people claim that the Obama recession was worse than most because it was deeper, but historically the deeper the recession the stronger the recovery. That is until Obama was leading the nation and putting the brakes on growth.

        1. I suppose that’s true that Obama’s economy was so bad that there was no where to go but up.

          Democrats are currently working very hard to destroy that strong economy, as well as the lowest black unemployment since the figure has been tracked.

    2. I find it interesting that Obama’s declaration that Trump’s success is all Obama’s doing actually sways people.

      If today’s strong economy where Obama’s doing, then Trump’s moves to reverse much of Obama’s legacy, his tax break, and deregulations should have tanked Obama’s wonderful economy. Strangely, the reverse happened.

      I don’t understand the logic of how the economy is Obama’s accomplishment, when all of his policies were reversed in 2016. If his policies made our good economy, then undoing them should tank the economy. After all, that’s what a lot of my Democratic friends said, that there would be an apocalyptic economy meltdown. Along with the death vans because Trump was going to go after the Jews. Funny how the antisemitic accusations taken as Gospel just faded away, even before he moved the embassy to Jerusalem. No apogees or admission of guilt for the Left saying such a thing about him and his supporters, though.

      I call Trump how I see him. Some good, and some bad. The economy is absolutely improved over Obama’s terms. The Republican Congress let me down on Obamacare, though.

  3. I thought Corey really had a Spartacus moment. After all he did lie and did so to divert attention from the person the inquiry was all about. So he’s the perfect Tony Curtis, who played Spartacus’ outspoken pal, and who rendered that memorable line first.

    1. mespo……………..favorite Tony Curtis line “Judy Judy Judy!” (imitating Cary Grant in Some Like it Hot) 😎

      1. Cindy, when Tony Curtis did his take on Cary Grant with the “Judy, Judy, Judy” line, he was really imitating the excellent comedian and actor Larry Storch, who celebrated his 95th birthday in New York earlier this year. Once Storch’s Cary Grant impression became widely known, many others stepped in to copy it, even though Cary Grant never actually said the line in any of his movies. A similar sort of thing happened to the terrific impressionist Will Jordan, who invented the classic Ed Sullivan–and now widely imitated–impression, right down to the line “really big show” (which was pronounced like “shoe”). Here is an entertaining audio clip where Cary Grant credits Larry Storch for the origin of the famous line frequently used in Cary Grant impressions:

  4. Mr. Turley is incorrect where he asserts that “the memorable line [“I’m Spartacus” was] spoken by [Kirk] Douglas in the 1960 film [Spartacus]. Kirk Douglas never uttered the line because he didn’t have the opportunity to do so. Although Spartacus stood up to admit that he was Spartacus, Antoninus (played by Tony Curtis) got up at nearly the same time and beat him to it, being the first one to say “I’m Spartacus,” before others joined in. Here’s the famous scene from the Stanley Kubrick-directed film:

      1. interesting note: belushi was of albanian descent. however i think he was Christian, a baptized Orthodox, unlike the Muslim majority of Albanians.

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