Say this for Brett Kavanaugh’s performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee: It suited the times. In an era during which all major political news seems to happen on and for TV, the Supreme Court nominee put forward a startling performance of rage and discontent seemingly intended for an audience of one. The testimonies of both Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused him of sexual assault, made for a powerful comparison and a haunting made-for-TV courtroom drama that came, in the end, to be defined by one man’s anger.
Ford’s testimony about her experiences as a teenage girl thrust her into the national spotlight, a trial that she bore with unusual grace that made her so clear a counterpoint to Kavanaugh’s visible and often tearful anger that the day came to seem, in its second half, like a scripted morality play. Kavanaugh derided the Judiciary Committee’s Democrats for, in his view, changing the tenor of judicial hearings. But the tone of his testimony did plenty to shift that on its own, bringing an openly acrimonious and bitter sensibility to a proceeding that already felt chaotic and strange. If, indeed, the manner in which judges are confirmed in the years ahead is to be marked by Thursday’s events, it will be as much or more by Kavanaugh’s demeanor as by the manner in which the day was run.
Kavanaugh tore into the Senate’s Democrats in his opening statement, suggesting that they were undertaking a cruel mission fueled by “revenge on behalf of the Clintons, and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.” His tone, throughout, was heightened — with his voice raised and often shaking with emotion, as when he blamed the hearing and the allegations that erupted for threatening his ability to teach law or coach youth basketball again. “My family and my name have been totally and permanently destroyed by vicious and false additional accusations,” he said with outrage. He saw himself as the victim of the story, rather than the holder of one of two dueling perspectives, and comported himself thusly.
During questioning, Kavanaugh repeatedly and snidely turned questions about his drinking habits back around on Democratic senators, asking them about their own drinking habits. (Most remarkably, he questioned Sen. Amy Klobuchar as to whether she’d ever blacked out while drinking after she spoke about her father’s experience with alcohol abuse, for which he later apologized.)
The structure of the day seemed cruel to Ford, a woman who never sought for her allegations about Kavanaugh to be made public or attached to her name. Ford was questioned by a female prosecutor brought in by the all-male Republican members of the Judiciary Committee, a choice that seemed to have been meant as a way to put a female face on the GOP contingent but that ended up creating an unpleasant visual for the TV frame on the hearing. Between five-minute segments conducted by the Democrats, Ford faced not-quite-hostile but entirely opaque chunks of questioning by her interlocutor, bits of courtroom-style questioning that lent the impression that Ford was, indeed, on trial, one that was unfolding bit by bit and studded with interruptions by Democrats assuring her she wasn’t on trial at all. Republicans, en masse, had little at all to say to Ford, ceding their time to a prosecutor whose cryptic, needling questioning attempted to build a case that Ford was untrustworthy without ever being so bold as to say so, and which was perpetually left in suspense. When, bringing Ford’s time on camera to an end, Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said “Let’s just be nice to her”; the novelty of a Republican senator acknowledging her at all was so extreme that one of Ford’s lawyers threw her hands out wide in shock.
But Ford’s testimony — and her grace under pressure, swallowing tears and perpetually trying to accommodate her interlocutors, even cracking little jokes about her need for caffeine in order to lighten the mood — was subsumed by the day’s second half. With the prosecutor vanishing from the proceedings after a few token questions, the Republican senators who’d passed on their right to question Blasey Ford expressed, in terms almost as aggrieved as the judge’s, their anger at how Kavanaugh had been treated. Their indignation came to define the day’s second half, with Lindsey Graham erupting in anger and telling Democrats, “If this is the new norm, you better watch out for your nominees.” Ted Cruz, echoing previous speakers, called the day “sadly, one of the most shameful chapters in the history of the United States Senate.”
The optics were stunning: Republican Senators, angry both at the process by which Ford’s allegation became public and, it would seem, at the mere fact of those allegations, apologizing to a person who was notionally there to face hard questions. And yet each of them seemed to nail an audition. The day of testimony was provided to the American public, and yet its content was dialed into activating bases. It’s fair to say that Ford was treated as sympathetically by Democrats as Kavanaugh was by Republicans, but Ford is seeking no office and had nothing at stake but speaking her truth and getting through it as unscathed as possible. She was understated and apolitical, relying more on her professional knowledge of brain chemistry than on Senate dealings; she was a person who felt beamed in from an era other than our own.
Kavanaugh, by contrast, continued building the same sort of case he had in his interview Tuesday on Fox News, appealing less to judicial tradition or to the idea of fairness than to pure partisanship. He’d been wronged, and he was willing to tar anyone who got in his way. Republicans, each building upon the previous speaker’s dudgeon, aided in the mission. All of it seemed designed to speak to the star of almost every televised news event of the past several years. Though he was physically absent, President Donald Trump was present over the course of a long day of testimony as its unseen audience, the figure to whom each Republican and to whom Kavanaugh pitched ideas of conspiracy and hitting-back-even-harder vitriol. (He tweeted in support of Kavanaugh after the day’s business had concluded, calling the judge’s testimony not just “honest” but “powerful” and “riveting” — the same terms we attach to our favorite TV dramas.)
If the judicial confirmation process will have changed after Kavanaugh, it’ll be because of Kavanaugh, those senators who stood by him, and the figure sitting at home, eagerly awaiting conflict and power politics and fighting fiercely no matter what. Ford, with her plainspoken, frank, and gently helpful mien, could never compete; she will likely shrink back into private life as best she can, under guard, while Kavanaugh awaits either a seat on the Supreme Court or a second life as a media star who’s proven himself willing and able to play Trump-era politics.