The hearing wasn’t simply about the Supreme Court. It wasn’t simply about Christine Blasey Ford and Brett M. Kavanaugh’s testimony.
It was about the nation’s deep, painful divides: liberals versus conservatives, women versus men, accusers versus the accused.
There were ideological battles and displays of emotion; there were eruptions of long-simmering tensions.
Based on what the senators in the room said, the result was, once again, people hearing mostly what they were already inclined to believe.
Like this confirmation process, the 1991 confrontation between then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and his accuser, law professor Anita Hill, similarly appalled and fascinated the nation as senators and witnesses argued over pornographic films and pubic hair.
Now, as then, the country is painfully divided. Now, as then, people lament the establishment of new lows.
Now, as then, viewers could hear what they wanted to: Christine Blasey Ford was at once “a nice lady who’s come forward with a hard story that’s not corroborated” (Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, the South Carolina Republican) and a hero who instantly “inspired and enlightened America,” unleashing a torrent of stories of sexual assault (Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat).
Kavanaugh was cast as both a serial sex criminal and an innocent public servant whose family and reputation were shattered by scurrilous accusations.
In an ever more polarized society, the big stories rise up and are swiftly slotted into the nation’s partisan map. White hats and black hats, liberal or conservative, red or blue.
But in that small Senate hearing room, reality insisted on its complex, contradictory nature. A woman who wanted dearly to remain anonymous became instead a historic figure, a new symbol of the culture’s anguished struggle over trust, identity and sexual politics. A man who devoted his accomplished career to reaching the highest rung on the professional ladder instead became a mark of a sullied democracy and a deeply mistrustful citizenry, a nominee for the highest court in the land speaking on national television about when he lost his virginity and when, if ever, he had blacked out from drinking too much beer.
Ostensibly, the nine-hour hearing before the Judiciary Committee was the penultimate step in the confirmation of a justice who would assure President Trump’s legacy as the leader who solidified the conservative majority on the Supreme Court for decades to come.
But in recent decades, the battleground of Supreme Court confirmation has assumed a different purpose, morphing into a field upon which the nation plays out its most basic and emotional divisions, faceoffs over race, civil rights and the most intimate matters of childbirth, mating and relations between the sexes.
“It’s not possible to separate what we’re going through in this hearing from the cultural moment we’re in, as women come forward with stories they’ve never told before,” said Carolyn Shapiro, director of the Institute on the Supreme Court of the United States at the Chicago-Kent College of Law. “There have been ideological battles about the Supreme Court since the beginning. They just didn’t take place on national TV.”
Throughout the century since Senate hearings on nominees to the high court started to become regular events, public opinion has become a vital element in the ultimate decision about who gets confirmed. “The public’s view does play a role and it should play a role,” Shapiro said.
Though most such hearings have focused on legal philosophy and ideology, the process is inherently political, subject to each era’s most volatile debates.
Even as Ford testified, the momentum of the #MeToo movement palpably accelerated. In congressional offices and newsrooms, women called message lines to offer their own accounts of assaults that had remained buried for years. On C-SPAN, callers unburdened themselves of stories of sexual violence, even as others declared Ford a liar. Outside the hearing room, women huddled together listening to the stream of testimony; those without earphones found themselves in a silence punctuated only by sniffles and an occasional sob.
But in the afternoon, perceptions and reactions flipped, as Kavanaugh, who had been relentlessly polite and solicitous in his earlier appearances before the committee, defended his reputation with a rhetorical blowtorch.
By turns angry, righteous, weepy and maudlin, the nominee at points seemed close to giving up his quest to sit on the highest court of the land. He ripped into the committee’s Democrats, issuing partisan attacks, slamming the process as a “national disgrace” and “a circus. ... You have replaced advice and consent with search and destroy.”
His language, formal and cautious before Thursday, descended to gutter level as he accused Democrats of seeking “to blow me up and take me down” and blamed the attacks he has faced on “revenge on behalf of the Clintons.”
Yet as angry as he was, Kavanaugh also presented what some saw as a sympathetic side, telling of his 10-year-old daughter’s desire to pray for his accuser, breaking up as he paid tribute to his father, appealing to the committee’s sense of pathos as he envisioned a future in which his shattered reputation might prevent him from ever again teaching, coaching or judging.
As two people fought for their truths, senators on both sides concluded that maybe there was no way in this process to determine definitively what had really happened.
Ford gave up her privacy and came forward out of a sense of “civic duty.” Kavanaugh passed on a life of big money from a big law firm and devoted his career instead to public service.
Ford told about the sexual assault that scarred her adolescence with painstaking attention to what she could and couldn’t recall, deploying science to explain the gaps in memory, showing emotion, but always with control and decorum.
Kavanaugh denied the sexual assault with anger, interruptions, aggressive language and a systematic recounting of events on a handwritten calendar that detailed his daily activities in high school three decades ago.
In a society struggling with how to know whom to believe, Thursday cast little new light. At day’s end, a Republican senator, Thom Tillis (N.C.) waved a card showing that someone had already purchased URLs for websites aimed at attacking any of several judges who might replace Kavanaugh as the nominee. Democrats continued to press for an FBI investigation into Ford’s allegations.