From Clarence Thomas to Brett Kavanaugh: the view of history and her story, as seen on TV

Millions saw Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh testify, but only time will tell who we actually listened to

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published September 28, 2018 6:00AM (EDT)

Brett Kavanaugh; Christine Blasey Ford (AP/Michale Reynolds)
Brett Kavanaugh; Christine Blasey Ford (AP/Michale Reynolds)

Optics. That word percolated up time and again during Thursday’s Senate Judiciary hearing, an event that dominated television news across many networks, broadcast and cable. Optics are everything in politics and in the courtrooms, two realms that we believe to be separate.

But as millions watched Dr. Christine Blasey Ford detail her gut-wrenching allegation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s assault (evenly at times, choking back tears in others) before watching Kavanaugh vociferously defend himself (with blazing anger and his share of tears) America became a nation battered by waves of anger, anxiety, stress, belief and doubt, connected by televisions and live streams.

Thursday’s Senate hearing may have been devoted to giving both parties a hearing on a sensitive accusation. What was broadcast, as one would expect, was as emotionally draining as it was political.

But what this has forced onto a national stage is another conversation long relegated to hushed tones about sexual assault and surviving trauma; about the uneven burden of credibility the accusers must bear as opposed to the accused; about how a powerful man’s refusal to give straight answers to questions about his drinking or past behavior may be seen as more excusable than a trauma survivor’s admitted gaps in memory.

Republicans relied on Arizona sex-crimes prosecutor Rachel Mitchell to question Ford on their behalf which, as Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace observed during an early break, was a terrible look. Essentially, what we got was an attorney politely deposing a research psychologist and psychology professor, an inquisitor met by an expert with detailed, data-based answers.

The Democrats, speaking for themselves, spoke to Ford’s humanity as a woman and survivor, often forcing her to silently fight back tears. The worst moments in optics for the GOP married the two, particularly when Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy asked Ford not about what she’s forgotten, but what she cannot forget.

“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two. And their having fun at my expense,” Ford said, referring to Kavanaugh and Mark Judge, who she names as being in the room, while Kavanaugh allegedly held her down and pushed his hand over her mouth.

“You’ve never forgotten that laughter,” Leahy said.

“They were laughing with each other,” Ford replied, her voice breaking. “. . . I was underneath one of them while the two laughed. Two friends having a really good time with one another.”

In contrast, Kavanaugh led with accusatory anger directed at the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary committee halted, in places, as he wept. He unleashed his rage on California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other Democrats seeking to hold him to answering questions that he dodged.

And when Kavanaugh testified, the Republicans on the committee spoke directly to him, or rather, to the Democrats on the committee whom they excoriated while sympathizing with all that this process has put Kavanaugh and his family through. They too have been subjected to threats of violence.

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In the rawness of this moment it’s difficult to narrow down what this all means in the end, or even whether today’s testimony will make a hint of difference to whether Kavanaugh secures a seat on the Supreme Court. Many realists have pointed out that the only opinions that really matter are the handful of swing votes on the Republican side of the aisle, and that most of America has already decided who they believe is telling the truth.

The headline leading Ford’s testimony comes from another heart-stopping moment where she said, she is "100 percent" certain that Brett Kavanaugh is the one who assaulted her.

Kavanaugh’s headline declares, “I’ve never sexually assaulted anyone.”

She provided verbal accounts and wore her suffering under a gentle mask, only allowing it to slip out when the pain of memory gets too great.

He led with his fury, written character witness testimony from friends and colleagues, anecdotes about innocent good times in high school twisted to service political mudslinging, and an old calendar.

In one of the more measured exchanges between Kavanaugh and Democrats, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar asked him to speak about reports from a college roommate that he drank heavily, asking several times if he had ever blacked out.

"Have you ever blacked out?" he retorted several times, before denying he ever had.

Klobuchar smiled wryly before stating calmly, "I don't have a drinking problem."

"Neither do I," Kavanaugh said.

Following her morning testimony, experts on Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN agreed that Ford came across as extremely credible. During the breaks in Kavanaugh’s testimony, many also said that that he was credible. Also during breaks in the proceedings, assault survivors dialed in to C-SPAN to give accounts of their experiences and who they believe. Not all survivors totally believed Ford, it must be said.

It also must be said that among those I heard, the ones expressing doubt tended to be Republican.

And in the hallways outside, reporters captured telling statements revealing the disconnect between agenda-driven politicians in that room versus what viewers saw and felt through our screens.  "I don't think she's uncredible. I think she an attractive, good witness," Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch said of Ford. "In other words, she's pleasing."

We, as a nation, are viewing the same televised testimony very differently. This is not exactly a thundering shocker. And how history frames this Senate Judiciary Hearing is impossible to deduce without more distance.

The only certainty is that history has a wealth of footage and instant social media reactions and, via C-SPAN’s call-in log, audio of public feedback that provides a barometer of how Americans view trauma survivors, sexual assault allegations, and credibility as seen through lenses of gender, partisanship and class.

A hearing that attracts this level of tune-in, which is expected to be massive, has lasting ramifications. We learned that in the wake of Anita Hill’s testimony in 1991, when she shared a detailed account accusing Clarence Thomas of workplace harassment, an injustice that until then women were aware of but had not spoken about so publicly because they had no recourse.

In the hours after the hearing, none could have predicted all her bravery would accomplish for advancing women’s equality in the service of protective legislation. The fact Thomas won confirmation to the Supreme Court nevertheless did not deter unprecedented numbers of women from running for office — and winning — in 1992.

Yet as proof of how far we haven’t come, not long ago Hill herself doubted that a nominee like Kavanaugh, the federal judge accused of sexual assault by four women, would get within ralphing distance of the Supreme Court.

In this moment our divided nation watched Ford calmly respond to Mitchell’s queries citing that she doesn’t remember how she got home and, despite the fact that she professes to a fear of flying, that she flies quite often.

Women viewed this testimony differently from men: Ford’s even speech, occasional smiles and even her language — time and again, she said she only wanted an FBI investigation so she could “help” the committee and place her memories — was that of a woman attempting to placate aggressors.

People viewed her vulnerability as compelling, undeniable . . . or weak. One CNN pundit even couched that vulnerability as more resonant than Hill's, which of course discounts the fact that Hill, as a black woman, was not allowed to display any emotion or affect aside from poise and calm if she wanted to have a prayer of being taken seriously.

Our riven viewership viewed Kavanaugh’s fire and refusal to directly answer questions as evidence of his inability to be a fair, level-headed justice, as proof that allegations of him having a bad temper while drunk must be true.

Or, he was seen as a fierce man defending his reputation against an orchestrated, politically-motivated smear job. Little can be done to change these opinions, and that would have been a true statement before Thursday’s hearing began.

The point of all this is, we’re seeing it before us in moving images, with visuals and sound, in the longest of longform, over the course of a day. This makes this one day in history particularly important. #MeToo has yielded endless written accounts from survivors and accompanying photos where available; it has also yielded limited footage of the accused or, in Bill Cosby’s case, the convicted, as they meet justice or whatever version of it those calling it out can get.

The contradiction in tones between Ford’s live testimony and Kavanaugh’s, however, may prove to be a turning point in the discussion about believing women. Maybe.

For the overarching theme in this conversation up until now is the relevance of a young man’s behavior to his worthiness for the honors, privileges and power bestowed upon him as an adult. And there, in that Senate chamber, we witnessed the rot driving that paradigm that we haven’t quite been able to put words to until now: The very basis of this kind of questioning takes the point of view of the perpetrator.

The perpetrator has the luxury of walking away, of downgrading a life-changing assault to childish boys-will-be-boys horseplay. He can redefine terms such as “devil’s triangle,” well established in the unofficial cultural lexicon, into “a drinking game.”

He can insist he’s never been so drunk that he can’t recall lapses in judgment. He can vent his spleen and have it reflected by other powerful men who could not bring themselves to directly question a woman, and have affirmed as a virtue by fellow partisans. When trouble circles, he can fall back on his faith in God or his stellar educational and career records.

The survivor, on the other hand, must clearly discuss in scientific terms the neurobiological effects of trauma on memory and explain how an act of "boyish horseplay" altered her life, maintaining her composure all the while, gently smiling and joking at times with her adversarial interrogator.

Ford took a polygraph test, conducted not long after her grandmother's funeral.

She had to keep from breaking down when a stranger — this one being New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker — told her, "You are speaking truth that this country needs to understand. And how we deal with survivors who come forward right now is unacceptable.” She had to keep from buckling under that excruciating weight while people are reminding her of what’s pressing down on her back.

At the same time, as millions of us watch this, maybe these images will finally explain why women are so angry at this process and at having to explain why it’s unjust. Maybe it will dawn on a few more people that in Ford, here is a woman with advanced degrees making her an expert on the ramifications on the crime and damage committed against her own body. Here is a woman asking for an investigation, knowing it might yield evidence contradicting her account. Yet in some camps, her testimony is considered less reliable than a teenage boy’s scribbles on a calendar.

If the overall Senate vote reflects that Ford’s account is more doubtful, what does that mean for the rest of us?

Thursday yielded images of anger, and anguish, tears and raised voices, intimidation and smugness. America’s dysfunction, writ large and broadcast around the nation and the globe.

But America needed to witness the effects of traumas we’ve let slide for all of these years, if only to begin putting words to informed conversations that are generations overdue. And Ford provided that view.

America needed a live, unedited show of entitlement, scripted obfuscation and indignant privilege, fresh and in our faces and, importantly, not demonstrated by a babbling TV character playing the part of a world leader. America needed visual evidence that trauma is an ongoing concern to survivors, and that attempts to insist that youthful behavior remain in the past does an injustice not just to the accuser, but to the value of justice itself.

We don’t yet know what this will mean for the Supreme Court, for democracy and how this could shift our culture. It’s going to take some time to sink in, and when it does, I suspect it’ll force us as a nation to take a very hard gaze at who we are.

It’s not a good look.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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