She said/he bellowed: The optics of the Ford/Kavanaugh hearings were as divided as America

Christine Blasey Ford testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.
(Michael Reynolds / Associated Press)

Christine Blasey Ford was shaking as she sat down to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday in the most high- profile and high-stakes Supreme Court confirmation hearing since Anita Hill faced off with Clarence Thomas in 1991.

“I’m terrified” were some of the first words from the soft-spoken and articulate California professor, kicking off an all-day televised spectacle that shook the press, Capitol Hill and social media to its core, and for most women watching, unearthed painful truths about how they are considered by the highest levels of government.

While the majority of senators spent more time striking the right optics for their party’s strategic goals than digging for the truth, Ford recounted for all the nation — those who’ve rallied behind her on social media, those who’ve threatened her life and her family’s — how Brett Kavanaugh allegedly sexually assaulted her in 1982 at a party when she was 15 and he was 17.


“Testifying is my civic duty,” she said during her opening statement at the grueling, almost-four-hour session, in which she answered five minutes’ worth of questions from each Democratic representative and the GOP’s hired female proxy, Rachel Mitchell, who stood in for the men who didn’t want the bad optics of grilling Ford directly.

Ford was asked by Mitchell about whom she’d told of the alleged attack other than her husband and therapist. Her girlfriends, at the beach, as an adult, she said. She was eager to clarify what she could, frequently asking, “Am I helping?” or apologizing when she felt she wasn’t clear enough.

All that after an opening statement describing the most painful chapter in her life, in which she claimed she was pushed into a bedroom by Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge, pinned down on a bed by Kavanaugh, groped and her mouth covered by his hand when she tried to scream. “The boys,” as she called them, “were laughing, having fun at my expense.”

Although #MeToo, the Women’s March and every feminist movement before those have inched the nation closer to an equitable future, with fair and equal representation for women in the workplace and government, it should be no surprise why Ford was terrified to speak before the elected officials of this country.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) told the press before ever hearing Ford that she was mixed up, and committee Chairman Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who led Thursday’s proceedings, defended Kavanaugh earlier in the week, saying: “I’d hate to have someone ask me what I did 35 years ago.” The day before the hearing, President Trump, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women, held a news conference during which he said “many” women make false accusations and referred to Ford’s testimony as a “con job.”

Ford should have been awarded a congressional medal just for showing up.

TV analysis: How cable news has reacted to the Kavanaugh-Ford hearing »

Grassley began with conciliatory words — “I hope my colleagues will join me in a show of civility” — but quickly lapsed into politics as usual, asking why it took so long for Ford’s claims to be brought forward, criticizing how the Democrats handled the allegations and calling her initial outreach a “secret” rather than confidential letter. He also quickly upheld the grand tradition of interrupting women who have the floor. He did so within seconds of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) taking the mike and he stopped a visibly nervous Ford within her first few words to ask her to pull the mike closer. But in a dance between appearing sensitive and needing to get the job done, he later commended Ford’s bravery, mentioned how unfairly Hill had been treated and referenced the #MeToo movement.

Democrats such as Sens. Corey Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California called her heroic and brave for volunteering to come forward and testify. But the blue state reps also leveraged her testimony to bolster their fight against the controversial nominee, folding speech after speech into their “inquiries” about the other side’s failure to bring in the FBI, and their rush to confirm a candidate who’s under suspicion.

By hiring Mitchell, the Republican senators avoided being accused of treating Ford as badly as Hill was treated (and by some of the same men). But the fury lurked just under the surface, and just outside the door. During the recess, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina couldn’t hold back any longer. He unleashed his fury at the Democrats, to a reporter, for making “a bunch of speeches … for political purpose” during Ford’s testimony. “[The] other side set it up to be just the way it is. I feel ambushed, as the majority.”

And whatever the Republicans might have wanted to say was made loud, clear and furious when Kavanaugh showed up; if Ford had been terrified, Kavanaugh was outraged and apoplectic.

During his 45-minute opening statement, he appeared exhausted and angry, and he shouted at the committee, often through tears, blaming Democrats, unnamed money men and the Clintons. Even before the questioning began, Kavanaugh struggled to maintain balance during his 45-minute opening statement, in which he blamed Democrats for trying “to blow me off and take me down,” but then, after several fiery eruptions, he characterized himself as an optimist who sees the “the sunny side of the mountain.” He interrupted and then aggressively argued with combative Democratic senators, then appeared to take deep breaths in respite when it was GOP hired hand Mitchell’s turn.

During recesses, cable news analysts picked apart the proceedings like a football game. CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin appeared flummoxed by the tactics of Mitchell, which included asking Ford several different ways about her alleged fear of flying. “I can’t figure out what she’s getting at,” he said. “It’s ‘CSI,’ Chevy Chase.”

Meanwhile, Fox News’ panel of conservative hosts and guests appeared glum. They didn’t spend much time dissecting Mitchell’s strategy but looked concerned as they conceded that Ford was a believable witness. Off-camera, other Fox contributors weren’t as measured in their comments about the hearing. Kevin Jackson was fired by Fox after he tweeted that Kavanaugh’s female accusers were “lying skanks.”

Ford, the woman at the center of it all, looked neither like a superhero nor a scheming villain.

She’s survived a Senate hearing, and perhaps worse.