Critic's Notebook: The Kavanaugh Hearing Will Live in Political Infamy

Brett Kavanaugh Speaks - Getty - H 2018
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Following Christine Blasey Ford's compelling testimony, Thursday's hearing devolved into a depressing spectacle that confirmed how morally corrupt the Republican party has become.

I would say that Thursday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing regarding Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh will go down as one of the saddest days in American politics. Except sadness was only one of the emotions felt while watching this depressing spectacle. Anger, shame, revulsion, pity and disgust are just some of the others.

But on reflection, sadness wins out. 

The hearing lasted nearly nine hours. Yet when it was over, Americans knew precious little more than when it began — except that the political system, especially when it comes to confirming Supreme Court justices, feels irretrievably broken. 

Here we were again, 27 years after the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearing, and not much had changed. A woman who has absolutely no incentive to lie stood before a roomful of politicians, and millions of television viewers, to describe something terrible that had happened to her at the hands of a man. Except this time the Republican senators on the committee were, depending on your viewpoint, either smart enough or scared enough to avoid repeating the spectacle of a woman being rudely interrogated by a bunch of older white men. So they hired Rachel Mitchell, an Arizona prosecuting attorney specializing in sex crimes, to do their dirty work for them.

This was the first opportunity for Americans to get their measure of Christine Blasey Ford since her accusation became public knowledge. And only the most rigid right-wing ideologue could argue that she was anything but a wholly credible and deeply sympathetic figure. Her most immediately distinguishing feature was her voice. Ford is a psychology professor, so one might have expected her to have the booming cadences of a teacher; instead she sounded utterly vulnerable. During her opening statement, in which she laid out the details of the alleged assault, her voice quavered and she seemed perpetually on the verge of tears. It broke your heart.

The image I can't get out of my mind after watching Ford's testimony is that of a house with two front doors. She explained that she first revealed the alleged incident during a couples therapy session with her husband. The reason for the session was Ford's seemingly irrational desire for a second front door to be installed as part of a home renovation. Why would someone feel the need for a second door? The reason went unsaid, but it was obvious: She was still suffering the trauma of a sexual assault in which she feared for her life and felt there was no avenue of escape.

It's hard to imagine anyone listening to Ford's opening statement and not feeling deeply for her. She pointed out (not that she needed to): "I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified." She described the attack in detail, tearfully recounting, "It was hard for me to breathe, and I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me." She also said that since her identity was made public, she and her family members have been the victims of constant harassment and death threats — which has apparently become the price that women pay in this country for coming forward.

Ford's testimony was so powerful that when it was over, it was hard to avoid the feeling that Kavanaugh's nomination was cooked. But this was destined to be a day filled with emotional whiplash, and the Supreme Court nominee provided it in spades during his 45-minute opening statement. In contrast to his recent interview on Fox News, in which he numbly repeated the phrase "fair process" so many times he seemed like a malfunctioning Westworld robot, Kavanaugh came out swinging. Clearly attempting to please President Donald Trump, who reportedly thought that his nominee looked "weak" in his Fox appearance, Kavanaugh was angry, defiant and aggressive, attacking the Democrats for their "calculated and orchestrated political hit" and claiming they were exacting "revenge on behalf of the Clintons."

He also frequently cried, especially when talking about the toll the last weeks had taken on his family. Kavanaugh practically broke down when recounting how his 10-year-old daughter had said, "We should pray for the woman" (meaning Ford), during the family's evening prayers.

It was an impassioned performance, disturbing in its blatant emotionalism. It also made you wonder how objective he could possibly be, especially toward Democrats, if he gets confirmed to the Supreme Court.

At first, the Republicans continued their strategy of having Mitchell asking the questions for their side. But the more the Democrats pressed Kavanaugh on his high-school days of drinking and carousing, and repeatedly asked him to request an FBI investigation, the more the senators looked disgruntled.

Finally, Sen. Lindsey Graham — who seems to have morphed into Trump's Mini-Me since the death of his close friend and moral and political conscience, Sen. John McCain — snapped. "This is the most unethical sham since I've been in politics!" he thundered. "This is not a job interview, this is hell!"

"You're supposed to be a Bill Cosby when you're in high school, and then you got over it?" Graham asked sarcastically.

His tirade inspired his fellow Republicans on the committee to take up the attack. The hearing soon became much less about Kavanaugh's behavior when he was a young man (although we heard plenty of details about such matters as drinking games, flatulence and throwing up) than whether the Democrats acted inappropriately and were guilty of railroading him.

By the time it was over, Ford, unfortunately, seemed like an afterthought. Once again, a woman's credible testimony was being pushed aside to make room for a political agenda. This was as supreme (pardon the pun) an example of "he said, she said" as you can get. Except that maybe we could have gotten to the truth, or at least made an honest stab at finding it, if the Republicans hadn't used their power to — as Sen. Mitch McConnell so shamelessly put it — "plow through" the process to get their man confirmed before the midterm elections.

History will not be kind to them. Let's just hope that we'll soon be able to change its course.