Published 7:35 PM EDT Sep 27, 2018
WASHINGTON – She was polite and deferential as she testified about a terrifying assault in high school by a boy she knew. He was angry and combative as he denied he was the one involved.
A fierce battle over whether to confirm federal Appeals Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court will depend on who is believed.
Christine Blasey Ford, 51 and a California professor, faced a hushed hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee as she spoke of the sound of her attacker's laughter 36 years ago. The fear that he would inadvertently kill her as he smothered her screams for help. The claustrophobia that followed and made her insist on having a second front door at her home even now.
How certain was she, Illinois Democrat Dick Durban asked, that the assailant was Kavanaugh? "100 percent," she replied.
In an outraged rebuttal, Kavanaugh, 53, categorically denied perpetrating this sexual assault or any other and accused Democrats of an orchestrated attempt at character assassination. "This confirmation process has become a national disgrace," he told the committee in a near shout. "You have replaced 'advise and consent' with 'search and destroy.' "
Kavanaugh, who had been a lawyer for the Whitewater independent counsel, suggested he was a victim of "revenge on behalf of the Clintons." Then he battled back tears when he said his 10-year-old daughter had suggested they should include "the woman" in their evening prayers.
Whether all that would succeed in holding the votes of GOP senators wasn't clear – without Democratic support, he can afford to lose no more than one Republican – will be tested. Another test after that: whether the aftershocks of the most dramatic congressional hearing in a generation would be felt in the midterm elections now just 40 days away.
Some Republicans argue the imperiled nomination of the justice who would solidify a conservative majority on the high court could energize Republican voters, convincing them to show up at the polls in November. But so far the debate over sexual abuse and harassment of women, captured by the #MeToo hashtag of the past year, has been to the benefit of Democrats who have seen record numbers of women run for office and vote in primaries and special elections.
As soon as the hearing ended, Trump made it clear he had liked his nominee counterattack, one that was almost Trumpian.
"Judge Kavanaugh showed America exactly why I nominated him," the president wrote in a tweet, picking up some of Kavanaugh's language. "His testimony was powerful, honest, and riveting. 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!"
The long, strange day could have been a movie rather than a cramped hearing on the second floor of the Senate Dirksen Office Building.
Ford's testimony was both wrenching and weird, in that Washington way. It was wrenching because her terror still seemed fresh as she told about being pushed into a bedroom and assaulted; she is 51 now, but she seemed at times like that 15-year-old again. In sympathetic questioning by the 10 Democratic senators, she said she was absolutely certain Kavanaugh was the one who attacked her.
It was weird as well because the Republican senators, all male and concerned about the optics, allotted their time to an Arizona sex-crimes prosecutor, Rachel Mitchell. Through methodical questioning, she tried to suggest that Ford wasn't believable by finding discrepancies in the details, asking who was paying for her lawyers and the lie detector test she took, and underscoring what she couldn't remember – the address of the house where the alleged attack happened, and the date, and how she got home afterward.
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar then asked Ford: What do you remember?
"The stairwell, the living room, the bedroom, the bathroom in close proximity, the laughter, the uproarious laughter, the multiple attempts to escape and the final ability to do so," she replied, struggling to keep her composure, even now.
In the final moments of the hearing, more than eight hours after it had begun, the Republican who is considered the swing vote on the committee, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, had his turn to question Kavanaugh. He did little to signal what he would do. "In the end, there is likely to be as much doubt as certainty," he said. "We'll never move beyond that."
The echoes of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings 27 years ago were unmistakable and repeated – from the questions about why Ford didn't report the offense at the time to Kavanaugh's outraged response to the accusations about his behavior. Thomas, who finally won confirmation to the high court, memorably called the attacks on him "a high-tech lynching." Kavanaugh derided the process he faced "a circus."
But the intervening quarter-century and the #MeToo movement made this difference: In 1991, polls showed Americans were inclined to believe Thomas. Before Thursday's hearings, Americans were inclined to say they weren't sure who to believe, and of those with an opinion, more believed her.
Ford was persuasive in part because she seemed so ordinary. She wasn't slick or glib or political. Her blond hair kept falling in her face. When she was pondering what to do, she said she listened to advice from "beach friends." She seemed eager to accommodate the prosecutor who had been hired to question her.
Kavanaugh was more emotional, more animated than he was in a Fox TV interview a few days earlier, close to distraught at times as he described the cost to his reputation and his family. He treated some of the questions from Democratic senators with contempt; when Klobuchar asked if he had ever blacked out after drinking, he replied, "Have you?" (A few minutes later, he apologized to her.) He also dodged repeated questions about whether he thought the FBI investigation should be reopened to try to determine the truth.
Just like 1991, the question is: Whom do you believe?