Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, the Senate testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh.
Going into the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, critics questioned the choice of Republicans to cede many of their questions to Rachel Mitchell, a veteran sex crimes prosecutor. Was the hearing fair?
The hearing was a travesty, at once tragic, corrupt, and hateful.
The decision of the 11 Republican men on the committee to delegate their questioning to a prosecutor Mitch McConnell called a “female assistant” wasn’t even the most outrageous aspect of the proceedings. It says much about the hearing as a whole that while Mitchell did the men’s dirty work — failing to pursue any evidence that might corroborate Christine Blasey Ford’s narrative (e.g., a conspicuous entry in Kavanaugh’s Summer of ’82 calendar) — she too was in the end was belittled for the failing of being a woman. Banished to her seat at the children’s table soon after Kavanaugh started to testify, she sat in humiliated silence while Lindsey Graham and his bros took over the questioning to beat up on Ford in absentia once her testimony had ended.
The ways in which this shitshow was not fair are many. A fair hearing would have called witnesses, and not just Mark Judge, to testify under oath about the incidents ostensibly being adjudicated, so that their unvetted public statements could be subject to cross-examination. A fair hearing would not have subjected a sexual-assault victim to a sex-crimes prosecutor while shielding the accused from equal scrutiny. A fair hearing would not have allowed men, from the doddering, filibustering chairman Chuck Grassley to Kavanaugh himself, to interrupt, condescend to, and talk over the questioners, particularly women on the committee. A fair hearing might also have been abetted by a coordinated line of inquiry from the Democrats, who often repeated each other’s questions (netting the identical answers) instead of collaborating on a comprehensive strategy that would advance the unraveling of Kavanaugh’s dishonest defense. Indeed, the Democratic men would have been well advised — as some had suggested — to turn over most of the questioning to Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris, experienced prosecutors who in their allotted five minutes each drew blood and forced Kavanaugh to bare his teeth in contempt of their gender. But alas, Democratic men will also be men. Each needed his moment center stage. So instances of Kavanaugh’s lying, including those not directly related to Ford’s testimony, both in real time and in the past, went largely unmentioned and unaddressed. The Democrats also failed to debunk Kavanaugh’s repeated misrepresentation that Ford’s friend Leland Keyser had rebutted her account of what happened that summer night in 1982.
Jill Abramson, the co-author (with Jane Mayer) of Strange Justice, the definitive account of the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill debacle, had it right when she wrote on the eve of this hearing that it had a “predetermined outcome.” Like the 1991 template, in which the showily pious Republican senator John Danforth served as a beard for his peers’ cynicism, the 2018 replay had the window dressing of its own moralistic Hamlet, Jeff Flake.
Donald Trump’s views are notoriously influenced by how things look on TV. With the country watching, how did Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford do?
By many accounts, even Trump was somewhat disarmed by Ford’s testimony — at least enough so to worry, with good reason, that she might impress most of those watching (if not his own base) as credible, courageous, and deeply moving. He was worried as well because in his view Kavanaugh’s pre-hearing prime-time appearance on Fox News had been a flop. He didn’t like his nominee’s PR strategy of presenting himself as a choirboy.
The Kavanaugh that emerged at the hearing understandably was much more to Trump’s liking — he dropped the Mr. Nice Guy pose and let his full Trump roar. He emerged as a bully, a screamer, a conspiracy theorist, a rabid partisan, and a guilt-free purveyor of falsehoods big and small (including about instantly Google-able definitions of sexual terms he used in his high-school yearbook).
For all his self-congratulation about the many (good-looking) women he has appointed clerks, he also behaved like an unalloyed misogynist. In his Fox News interview, he had revealed his contempt for women subtly — by stepping in to man-answer a question the interviewer posed to his wife. In the hearing, he did just what Trump would do: accusing a woman who dared question him (Klobuchar) of the accusation she had raised about him (drinking to excess). If anything, he out-Trumped Trump in one area: While Trump is a teetotaler, Kavanaugh has the personality of a raging, self-pitying, out-of-control drunk. (He seems to think drinking doesn’t count as long as it’s beer.) As he tried to shut Klobuchar down with his bullying and bellowing, it was all too easy to visualize him pushing his hand on the teenage Ford’s mouth to stop her from screaming for help during an attempted rape. It was hardly a surprise that Kavanaugh said he didn’t deign to watch Ford’s testimony.
Trump didn’t think John McCain was a hero, but he was thrilled by Kavanaugh. No wonder. Kavanaugh stood up to Ford and his other accusers as Trump has to the nearly two dozen women (we know about) who have accused him of sexual assault. In light of a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist pre-hearing poll showing that a majority (54 percent) of Republicans believe that Kavanaugh should be on the court even if it’s true that he assaulted women, he is the ideal Supreme Court justice for the party of Trump. We should not forget, however, that this misogynist culture ruled the GOP well before Trump came along: Grassley, Orrin Hatch, and Lindsey Graham, among so many others, were there first.
Whether in the Senate chamber or out in America, what has this hearing changed, and what has it not?
About the only positive change to come out of this hearing — and I am being facetious — is that we now know that Republican men have been carefully schooled on how to profess “respect” for female victims of sexual assault. They have become expert at intoning that they care about rape victims because they are speaking “as the father of daughters” — as if those of us who are the fathers of sons, or those men who aren’t fathers at all, needn’t give a damn about women who are abused by men. These senators’ behavior at the hearing amply demonstrated that they don’t mean a word of the flowery sentiments some strategist has forced them to memorize. As committee chairman, Grassley set the tone. “You got what you wanted — I’d think you’d be satisfied,” he snapped at Klobuchar as if she were a maidservant after she thwarted his attempt to bulldoze her. Out in the hallway during a break, Lindsey Graham “praised” Ford by calling her “a nice lady”; Hatch’s term of choice was “attractive.” The guiding principle of the hearing, subscribed to by all of these Republican senators, was that men are the victims most worthy of our sympathy in sexual assaults, not women. The grievance of white male victimization — by women, by minorities, by elites — is Trumpism at its ugliest core.
More than a quarter-century later, it feels as if very little has changed since Clarence Thomas was elevated to the court, #MeToo notwithstanding. Had Ford not been white — and from the professional class — you have to wonder whether the Republican men on the committee would have completely dropped their patently phony pretense of concern for her welfare and stabbed her in the front instead of the back. What will follow now is a national tsunami of rage much as there was after the sliming of Anita Hill. And the aggrieved will not just be those “suburban women” politicos keep pigeon-holing, but most women, and more and more men. We have to hope that this rage will sweep more women into office as it did in 1992, the so-called Year of the Woman. And sweep some women out, too, including Susan Collins, whose tired act — repeated, feckless expressions of being “concerned” about Trumpian horrors while doing nothing about them — should be punished by Maine’s voters when she’s up for reelection in 2020.
What an awful day. My colleague at Veep, the showrunner David Mandel, is a master of finding dark humor in Washington horrors, but he reflected my mood, and I imagine that of many, when he said after these hearings that “it’s starting to seem like it was an accident that the country worked as long as it did.” As I write, there’s a faint hope Kavanaugh will not make it to the Court. There’s a less faint hope that the GOP will lose control of at least one chamber of Congress in November.
But even if those battles are won, the fact remains that America has a major political party more dedicated than ever to stripping women of power by any ruthless means it can.