Thursday's hearing on the accusations of sexual assault brought against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was a train wreck. Even by the standards of most high-profile congressional hearings, it was ill-conceived, poorly executed, and painful to watch.
My impressions from the hearing were at the same time broadly political and narrowly human. Despite the attempt to give the proceedings the character of a trial, complete with cross-examination from an elected prosecutor, there was nothing rigorous about it.
I should say at the outset that after nearly nine hours of testimony, questions, and grandstanding I have no definite opinions about the veracity of the allegations made by Christine Blasey Ford. Nothing in Ford's testimony gave the impression that she was being anything but truthful. Some have interpreted Kavanaugh's behavior during the hearings — the alternating belligerence and anguish — as evidence of his guilt. I am not so sure. It is just as possible to hear in his voice the frustration of a man who has been wrongly accused. If this actually were a trial and I were a juror I would certainly not vote to convict Kavanaugh. Thank goodness I am not a senator.
Ford was courageous. So, too, was Kavanaugh. This cannot be said of any other person who spoke on Thursday. Both sides were disingenuous. Dianne Feinstein and her Democratic colleagues waited more than a month to do anything with the allegations. They used none of their virtually unlimited opportunities to address the accusations with Kavanaugh, to assemble witnesses, to confer with their Republican colleagues about what they had learned, to give President Trump a chance to withdraw his nominee. They exploited a woman's pain for maximum partisan advantage. Their endless harangues about a potential FBI investigation in which Kavanaugh agreed to participate on multiple occasions insulted the intelligence of hundreds of thousands of viewers. Nothing about Ford's conduct suggests that this is what she wished to happen. Meanwhile Republican Chairman Chuck Grassley flatly refused to allow Mark Judge, Kavanaugh's alleged accomplice, to testify either in public or in a private session of his committee. Kavanaugh's own obstinate refusal to acknowledge the value of securing proper testimony — as opposed to a narrow six-sentence statement drafted by a lawyer — from Judge is the only serious mark against his conduct on Thursday.
Despite their repeated claims about the value of the day's proceedings, no member of the Senate gave the impression that he or she cared in the slightest about what was being said by either Ford or Kavanaugh except insofar as it could be exploited. Not a single mind was made up or changed in that room, even if many flitted back and forth in front of televisions and laptop screens across the country.
I have written before about the implications of these accusations for both opposition to legalized abortion in this country and the #MeToo movement. The hearing did not fundamentally change my view that confronting the reality of sexual assault will require the evaluation of accusations that seem incredible, that emerge seemingly out of nowhere, that involve witnesses whose motivations seem suspect at best, and that doing so will sometimes involve casting aside many valued procedural shibboleths.
For good or ill I have come to believe that discussing Kavanaugh's nomination in this broader context was a mistake. This is not only because of the epistemic difficulties inherent in this case, but because for so many people the stakes here are so high that any attempt at reasonable conversation became impossible. The moth-eaten veil of civility has been lifted, probably for good, not only in the Senate itself but among those portions of the American public who concern themselves with the politics of the Supreme Court. It is impossible to disagree, politely or otherwise, about the fitness of a nominee for the Supreme Court or even the prudence of his or her candidacy. The high court's authority, omnipotent within its narrow sphere, is of too much importance. Is this a good thing? It doesn't matter. It's simply true.
Two weeks ago conservatives were arguing that if they did not push back against these accusations, the future of the nomination process for the judiciary would be one in which the reputations of good men and women could be destroyed on the flimsiest of pretexts. The transition from vaingloriously striving to forestall this peril to embracing it as just another partisan weapon among others was almost instantaneous. On Thursday Lindsey Graham promised as much, suggesting that "what comes around goes around." I hope this was an idle threat. I hate to imagine what else it might mean.