shadow

At fraught Kavanaugh hearing, dueling narratives and a fresh battle of beliefs

Why We Wrote This

The testimonies of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh may well be the most watched television event of the year. But for many Americans, offscreen discussions of character and morality occurring all over the United States are taking center stage.

Win McNamee/Reuters
Christine Blasey Ford is sworn in before testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, with her attorneys Debra Katz and Michael Bromwich, on Capitol Hill in Washington Sept. 27.

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It was, as one person said, “a national moment.” Viewers across the country watched from their living rooms and on their phones, from college campuses and the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. For many Americans, particularly women, it seemed to represent a kind of watershed moment, a breaking of the dam. One woman called in to C-SPAN to detail her own rape. In Washington, Christine Blasey Ford delivered a deeply personal testimony in raw and vulnerable tones. A defiant Judge Kavanaugh “categorically and unequivocally” denied her accusation, while saying he bore her personally no ill will. That did not hold true for members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “You have replaced advise and consent with search and destroy,” he said, adding that the nomination could have consequences long beyond his own nomination. “When the whole nation is watching and so many larger issues are being touched upon – abuse, sexual abuse, and women’s abilities to tell their stories ... I just think this is a very powerful moment for the whole country," says Kelly Brother, a graphic artist in Memphis, Tenn., who says he is registered as a Republican but identifies as an independent. “It’s unfortunate that all of this has gotten to the point where it’s going to have devastating personal consequences for Ford and Kavanaugh.”

The stairwell. The living room. The bedroom. That the bed was on the right side of the room, and the bathroom in close proximity. That she made eye contact with the friend of Brett Kavanaugh, who had pinned her to the bed, hoping that his friend would help her.

Christine Blasey Ford testified on Thursday that she remembered all those details about that summer evening in which she alleges a drunk, teenage Kavanaugh groped her and tore at her clothes, with the music turned loud and Mr. Kavanaugh’s hand over her mouth muffling her yells for help.

But the strongest memory, she told Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, was “the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two,” she said, her voice cracking. “Their having fun at my expense.”

It was deeply personal testimony, delivered in raw and vulnerable tones. And it seemed to strike a chord – not only with the senators and others in the room, but with viewers across the country who watched it in their living rooms and on their phones, from college campuses to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. For many Americans, particularly women, it seemed to represent a kind of watershed moment, a breaking of the dam.

“There are literally hundreds of thousands of people watching your testimony right now,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D) of New Jersey.  “You are opening up to open air the hurt and pain that goes on across this country.”

One woman called into C-SPAN to detail her own rape.

“It makes me almost want to cry,” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake of Professor Blasey Ford. “Her honesty and her humanity are just unbelievable.” That Blasey Ford could describe sitting in the parking lot of Walmart trying to figure out how to find a lawyer makes her credible, she added.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, sharply criticized how Democrats handled the hearing process, not sharing the allegations with the committee and leaking it at the last minute. During the questioning of Kavanaugh, he shouted that “This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics,” excoriating the other side. “Boy, you all want power. God, I hope you never get it.”

Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster who says that Blasey Ford came across as credible, points out that even before the hearings started, Democrats had decided they were against Kavanaugh. “Now they’re playing this game of, ‘you need to be open.’ ” He called it “hypocritical” showmanship.

In emotional testimony, a fiery Judge Kavanaugh “categorically and unequivocally” denied Blasey Ford’s accusation, saying “I am innocent of this charge.” “This confirmation process has become a national disgrace," he said telling the Senate, “You have replaced advise and consent with search and destroy.” Kavanaugh said the tenor of the hearings could have consequences long beyond his own nomination, with good people unwilling to accept government positions. “You sowed the wind. For decades to come, I fear the whole country will reap the whirlwind.”

But he stressed that he bore Blasey Ford personally no ill will, and became overcome with emotion when talking about his 10-year-old daughter praying for her.

“The truth is that I have never sexually assaulted anyone – not in high school, not in college, not ever. Sexual assault is horrific.... I've never done that, to her or to anyone,” he said, urging the committee to look at the record of his life promoting the equality and dignity of women. If confirmed, he says, he would be the first justice in history to have all women law clerks. “That is who I am. That is who I was.”

Watching history unfold

Members of the public who were eager to watch history unfold had lined up as early as the night before, hoping to get a seat in the room. Those who didn’t get in started watching on their phones in the hall. Many women wore teal-colored clothing, in reference to Anita Hill’s outfit during her testimony against then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991.

Outside the entrance to the Dirksen building, a small group of about 40 listened quietly as the hearing was blasted over a megaphone.

Saul Loeb/AP
Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in before testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sept. 27 on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Bill Huff, a software salesman from Atlanta, was in Washington taking his daughter on college visits, but pushed off their plans to try to attend the hearing. He said he hopes the proceedings will send a positive message to his daughter. “I hope she takes away from this experience ... that women are created equal and should be treated with respect,” he said. “That the world of the future doesn’t have to be the world of the past.”

Jeotsna Grover, a physician from Riverside, Calif., who is in D.C. with her husband, decided to come show solidarity with Kavanaugh – a man they feel is being unfairly maligned. He has been previously vetted by the FBI, and “They have found no gaps in his character,” she says. “I think he is the right person – and I think politics has intervened.”

Carol Edwards, from Dublin, Ohio, is part of a group of women who have been trying to share their stories with senators and have been part of demonstrations this week.

“I will admit that I was very predisposed to believe Dr. Ford ... I was very impressed by her testimony. I thought she was extremely heartfelt,” says Ms. Edwards, a self-described survivor who arrived early this morning to show support for Blasey Ford. “She seemed so very fragile and so very strong all at the same time and so gracious to other people in a situation where much of the time I felt she was being victimized.”

“In seriousness, I really am trying to be as fair as I can. I guess I would say of his testimony, he’s very passionate about it. He’s clearly very upset,” she says of Kavanaugh. “Maybe his family has gone through hell, too, they probably have, and that’s wrong. No one should be treated that way, but he doesn’t get a free pass because he is getting the same kind of treatment, perhaps, that she’s getting.”

Outside the Dirksen building, Americans were also riveted to what one called a national moment. "When the whole nation is watching and so many larger issues are being touched upon – abuse, sexual abuse, and women’s abilities to tell their stories ... I just think this is a very powerful moment for the whole country,” says Kelly Brother, a graphic artist in Memphis, Tenn., who says he is registered as a Republican but identifies as an independent. “It's unfortunate that all of this has gotten to the point where it’s going to have devastating personal consequences for Ford and Kavanaugh.”

“I think this serves a beneficial larger purpose, which is bringing these issues to the fore and allowing more women to come forward and to tell their stories. Of course it didn't work in the presidential election – that is the glaring contrast in all of this,” says Mr. Brother, who said he got choked up several times during Blasey Ford's testimony. “But down the road it might. Down the road, people might ask more of these types of questions when people of power and authority are under consideration for leadership posts.”

Character and the country

The question of the character of a public servant was on many Americans' minds in the days leading up to Thursday's hearings. This week, Maggie Seymour, a major in the Marine Corps Reserve after a decade on active duty, found herself wondering about the lack of rational discourse on matters of character and morality. “Is the point of the discussion only to win? The point should be the truth,” says Ms. Seymour, a fellow with High Ground Veterans Advocacy, a nonprofit policy and research organization in Washington. “You should enter the discussion with an open mind and a willingness to consider all available information. There should be a little empathy and humility.”

In Georgia, one Republican was contemplating questions of fairness.

“This is not about party. All we want to see is a very real sense of fairness and the kind of objectivity that we used to pride ourselves on in the United States,” says Dennis Brown, a county commissioner in Georgia’s Forsyth County.

And he, like many Americans, is aware of the potential longer-term impact on the country that Kavanaugh spoke about Thursday.

“It absolutely affects people's trust," says Mr. Brown. “Any time a citizen is impacted by government in some small way, they may not take action right then, but they vote and keep up with the issues, and they pay attention. Every time it just chips away a little bit more at their perception that things are impartial and fair and balanced and transparent. Like a dollar bill is not backed by gold, they wonder, what backs up the full faith and confidence of the government?”

Staff writers Martin Kuz in Sacramento, Calif.; Rebecca Asoulin in Boston; and Patrik Jonsson in Savannah, Ga., contributed to this report.

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