A painful hearing lays bare nation's political flaws
Posted September 28, 2018 1:00 a.m. EDT
(CNN) — A searing day when two lives were torn apart on live television left a divided America facing more fundamental questions than whether Brett Kavanaugh should sit on the Supreme Court.
The Senate hearing meant to find the truth about Christine Blasey Ford's accusation that President Donald Trump's nominee assaulted her in the 1980s degenerated into one of the most distasteful political spectacles in many years.
What did or didn't happen at a teenage house party in the Washington, D.C. suburbs and is now playing out 36 years later in an improbable twist of history. For both the accuser and the accused, it is a personal tragedy.
But it is a national tragedy that the confirmation process has exposed a ruptured political system utterly unable to find consensus over an issue as series as an alleged sexual assault, even in the #MeToo era.
Instead of showing how far Washington has come in understanding the quintessential challenges of an experience many women know but few talk about, Thursday's showdown showed how far it has to go.
The day began with Ford appearing before the American public for the first time, declaring: "It is not my responsibility to determine whether Mr. Kavanaugh deserves to sit on the Supreme Court. My responsibility is to tell you the truth."
It ended after an aggressive Kavanaugh warned in a tirade directed at Democrats who backed Ford's allegations, "You sowed the wind, for decades to come. I fear that the whole country will reap the whirlwind."
If the evidence of Thursday is any guide, where you stand on Ford and her allegations depends on how you vote. Republicans are prone to believe that Democrats have orchestrated or at least exploited claims of misconduct by Kavanaugh. Democrats see the administration's refusal to reopen an FBI background check into the judge as proof that Republicans are rushing the process and trying to hide the truth.
And whatever Kavanaugh's fate, the fight by Republicans to establish a generational conservative majority on the court, and the Democrats' bid to block them, will plunge the nation deeper into the bitter tribalism that has worsened in the age of Trump.
Should Kavanaugh reach the court, millions of women and liberals will see him as the illegitimate product of an immoral confirmation process -- a reality that will impugn the integrity of one of the few bodies in American civic life that has retained some public trust.
If he goes down, his plight will only enrage the conservative base and deepen the determination of partisans to avenge what they see as a Democratic smear campaign, in a way that will further polarize the nation.
And for all the agony of nine hours of emotionally draining testimony, it's not yet clear the politics around Kavanaugh's nomination -- stalled by a flurry of accusations of sexual misconduct -- has changed all that much.
A strong band of Republicans in the Senate want to push on fast -- as soon as Friday with a series of votes that could see Kavanaugh confirmed next week -- in a move that would validate a long-sought dream of the party's conservative base but risk alienating the suburban women who could decide November's midterm elections.
But GOP leaders still cannot be sure that wavering Republicans like Maine Sen. Susan Collins, Alaska's Lisa Murkowski and Arizona's Jeff Flake will be on board for a vote in which the GOP can only face one defection if all the Democrats hang together.
Ford '100%' sure
Thursday's hearing echoed another Supreme Court confirmation fight hung up on allegations of improper behavior by a powerful man -- the 1991 process involving Justice Clarence Thomas and his accuser Anita Hill.
Ford, voice quivering, said she was "terrified" to reveal herself before the world but was "100%" sure that Kavanaugh was the teenager who assaulted her in 1982, on an evening she said left her with such acute fears of entrapment that she built two front doors in her house.
Ford held the nation in thrall, as viewers inside the hearing room and outside shed tears. Her descriptions recalled the terror-struck teenager she was at the time of the incident.
She displayed a level of grace, dignity and self-control that seem to have permanently deserted polarized Washington. And her sincerity made the idea that she would put herself through such a trial, as part of a partisan plot to discredit Trump's Supreme Court pick, seem absurd.
The most painful moment of her testimony came as she recalled "the laughter, the uproarious laughter" between Ford and his friend Mark Judge during the alleged assault as "they were having fun at my expense."
For Ford's supporters it was an image that encapsulated her courage and her credibility and appeared to leave the White House with serious problems in trying to keep the Kavanaugh nomination alive.
For other women who have kept silent over their own suppressed experiences, it was an inspiration.
Kavanaugh's answer was to leave the nation's most important TV viewer, back at the White House with no incentive to pull his name.
The judge came out firing, ditching the wooden persona he used on a Fox News interview earlier in the week.
Alternating between tears and fury, he gave an impression of Trump himself, branding the hearing a Democratic hit and a "national disgrace" to avenge the Clintons in the wake of the 2016 election.
In a rant he would surely not tolerate in his courtroom, Kavanaugh yelled at Democrats: "Your coordinated and well-funded effort to destroy my good name and destroy my family will not drive me out."
It was a display that in any tempered consideration of Kavanaugh's qualifications for the high court might raise questions about whether he has the temperament or is too politically motivated to rule on the merits on some of the most polarizing cases in modern America.
And had Ford shouted and fumed in that way that Kavanaugh did, Republicans would have portrayed her as a hysterical, unreliable witness.
But his willingness to stand and fight may have won him a fresh well of support from Trump's grassroots voters and could help restore lost momentum to his confirmation hopes.
It was also a symptom of genuine internal agony from a man who vehemently denies assaulting Ford, or drinking to excess as a teenager to such an extent that he may have blacked out or failed to remember any elements of the alleged assault.
Kavanaugh repeatedly choked up and cried, when he praised the support of his friends or the impact of the controversy on his daughters.
There is no doubt he was fighting for more than his shot at the Supreme Court -- his entire reputation and way of life.
"I love teaching law, but thanks to what some of you on this side of the committee have unleashed, I may never be able to teach again," he told the Democrats.
"I love coaching more than anything ever done in my whole life, but thanks to what some of you on this side of the committee have unleashed, I may never be able to coach again."
Republicans decry 'charade'
But the signs were that Kavanaugh's fury might have worked in turning around a day that had begun disastrously for him, with even White House sources confiding that Ford was a credible witness and expressing disquiet about the Senate GOP's handling of the hearing.
"Judge Kavanaugh showed America exactly why I nominated him. His testimony was powerful, honest, and riveting ..." Trump tweeted soon after the marathon hearing ended.
"Democrats' search and destroy strategy is disgraceful and this process has been a total sham and effort to delay, obstruct, and resist. The Senate must vote!"
Early in the day, it seemed as though Kavanaugh's nomination was in serious trouble.
Then the 11 Republican senators shoved aside the female prosecutor they called upon to cross-examine Ford, but not her alleged attacker, and took over the questioning themselves.
It meant that Ford was treated as if she had done something wrong, while Kavanaugh had the benefit of a fired-up partisan defense.
Sen. Lindsey Graham engineered an outburst that will have caught Trump's eye, after Kavanaugh started floundering under Democratic questioning.
"To my Republican colleagues, if you vote no, you're legitimizing the most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics," Graham said.
"I hope that the American people will see though this charade. "