Reflections from Dr. Ford/Judge Kavanaugh Hearing

Tom Williams

I cannot entirely shake the heartbreak, the spectacle, the double standards, and the political maneuvering laced throughout the Kavanaugh Hearings on Thursday. In lieu of writing a ten thousand-word draft for The Atlantic, I want to present some of my thoughts here and would appreciate hearing from you as well.

On Dr. Christine Blasey Ford…

On Wednesday, CSPAN re-aired the Anita Hill testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on the nomination of Clarence Thomas from October 11, 1991. It was something I was familiar with — in part because my mother wanted me to know about the gravity of power and pain that is not eliminated for marginalized people despite one’s personal successes. But watching it again and seeing the misery and discomfort is horrifying. It’s horrifying for me, at home, knowing the outcome, knowing the story.

To watch the testimony by Dr. Ford brought back those same feelings (and I should note that the parallelism between the two situations has been written and discussed through popular press). But what is truly devastating is the space that Dr. Ford had to recount the most terrifying moments of her life. I don’t exclusively mean the room, although the idea of having to “testify” in front of cameras and a panel of people is part of the inhumanity.[1] I mean that Dr. Ford had to recount these events in front of a selection of people where about half of them think she is a liar and an inconvenience.

It started as wanting Dr. Ford to hurry up and meet earlier in the week. It was Sen. Heller calling it a “little hiccup” or Sen. Graham calling it a “drive by shooting” or the Senate majority leader McConnell suggesting they will “plow right through it.” The entire testimony is one of the WORST types of displays in politics: a charade. A farce. A “we want to hear your side because it is important to get as much information as possible” but their minds are made up. It was a show. A public show because the public cares in ways that the people in that room, the people with the power, don’t really give a damn.

It’s also reliving this terror, talking to men in power who have made up their minds, and not being able to span a wide range of emotions (and needing to be deferential) because the “optics” are against women. Dr. Ford couldn’t raise her voice if she wanted. Couldn’t express disgust at the people that view her pain as a mild inconvenience for their main man they want to give a promotion to. She had to be passive because we know that women and men aren’t allowed to be the same type of “expressive” or the same type of “emotional.

That Dr. Ford describing the clarity of her memory of “the uproarious laughter between the two and having fun at my expense fell on intentionally closed ears is painful.

On Prosecutor Rachel Mitchell…

The presence of Mitchell really bothered me on many levels. I appreciate the concern over optics of 11 white men asking a woman probing questions to establish (or undermine) her credibility but the distance created by Republicans during the hearing felt especially wide given Democrats engaging directly with Dr. Ford. It gave off the feeling that these Republican Senators don’t really have the ability to work with Dr. Ford because they lack the ability to simultaneously get information and do it in a way that isn’t demeaning. Maybe that is true but that is the feeling I received from it.

As to the tactics, Mitchell functioned as a prosecutor during a trial, which was fine. It was expected. The political problem is Senate hearings are political shows and the deliberate nature of the questioning (airline habits, following the polygraph money) seemed disjointed and she didn’t get enough time to make her point. Here is the other reality: there isn’t really much room for her to undermine Dr. Ford’s credibility.

The other lasting memory is the fact that Mitchell was quickly dismissed when the questioning into Kavanaugh started to get more pointed. She was mostly silent during the Kavanaugh testimony and that left us with the reality that a prosecutor questioned a victim of sexual assault and the accused didn’t really have the same experience. That bothers me.

On “…Fire and Fury At His Command…”

There is space for defiance against a false allegation that has the ability to destroy one’s career or reputation. There is also space for raising questions about the veracity of one’s account of an event. What Judge Kavanaugh and Sen. Graham engaged in was the type of male fragility that exemplifies power over virtue. It was a stunning performance that may play with supporters but came off as partisan, absent of temperament, and missed the room overall.

It also, again, is the type of thing a Black or Brown person or a woman could NEVER do while maintaining credibility. It’s something men can do and be read as passionate when, in fact, it was unhinged, hysterical, unprofessional, and a national disgrace.

On Political Tactics…

FBI investigation. They really wanted an FBI investigation, which makes a lot of sense. It would be a helpful fact finding endeavor (especially since I DO believe Judge Kavanaugh was a bit loose with his statements about drinking, memory, and devil’s triangles). But the goal is also to extend the time before a final vote. As time increases, public sentiment decreases. To hear each Senator ask Judge Kavanaugh if he would like an investigation by the FBI was exhausting but it was a line of argument they hoped would stick with the public: Why wouldn’t an innocent man want to wait a week to clear his name? Looks like Sen. Jeff Flake got the message today but we will wait and see the scope and extent of an extra week.

On the downside, I thought Democrats really missed an opportunity in digging deeper into the connections with Ed Whalen and his reckless suggestion of another person who looked like Kavanaugh as being responsible for the attack.

Ultimately, it was a good day for the Democrats. For Republicans, whatever “case” against Dr. Ford that they tried to make, it didn’t really work at all. The second half of the hearing was in a more familiar place for them: yelling about grandstanding, not being bullied by last minute stunts by the Democrats, and reinforcing their majority. I think the use of prosecutor Rachel Mitchell was a failed plan and they probably wouldn’t do it again. It’s probably better to get advise on HOW and WHAT to ask versus total abdication of control.

On the question that should be asked of Judge Kavanaugh and each Senator…

Many people discussed Dr. Ford as a credible and believable person. I agree. But some folks have done the “I also believe Judge Kavanaugh as he was very compelling” line. If that is the case, one has to answer: You say you find Dr. Ford incredibly credible and believe her account. She is 100% certain that this attempted rape happened by Brett Kavanaugh. What part of Dr. Ford’s testimony DON’T you believe and why not?

Finally, a word on FBI investigations…

While writing this, Mitch McConnell has agreed to a FBI background investigation for up to one week. I think this is a good, not great thing. Namely, its not ideal to set hard limits on fact finding explorations (though Mark Judge will reportedly be cooperating with the investigation). I understand not wanting an extended dive (politically) but the maximum of seven days feels short. We don’t know at the time of publishing the scope (is it just into Dr. Ford’s allegation or all of the allegations) but setting hard, short limits doesn’t strike me as the most fair process. But it seems fairness is secondary to politics, most glaringly when public pain is the topic at hand.

[1] Let me also add that if you aren’t a professional at speaking in front of the media and in that format, it is SO SO SO hard. Dr. Ford’s “innocence” was also helped by the fact that she was a novice in the space. No coaching. No grandstanding. Just sitting down with whatever preparation one can give and doing something that she has NEVER done before in front of the entire country. Live. Utterly remarkable.

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