Kavanaugh Confirmation: Washington Broken, Nation Divided

Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifying on Sept. 27, 2018
Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifying on Sept. 27, 2018
Marc Fisher

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The subject was supposed to be the selection of a new justice on the Supreme Court. Instead Thursday's showdown on Capitol Hill was a raw, scorched-earth confrontation across the nation's most emotionally wrenching divides. This was men against women, right against left, a cascade of recriminations, explosions of anger, hours of tears and sobs.

A hearing that was supposed to bring clarity instead erupted in thunderclaps from the nation's built-up tensions over how the sexes are supposed to behave with each other. Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh and the woman who accused him of sexually assaulting her came before the Senate Judiciary Committee in "the wrong town at the wrong time," as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) put it.

The result was affirmation that Washington is as broken as it has ever been. Based on what the senators in the room said, the result was, once again, people hearing mostly what they were inclined to believe. The result, far from clarity, was a complex rush of emotions adding up to two families left in wreckage and a political system without even a pathway to cooperation.

The day ended with discord bordering on dark visions of a hopeless future. Graham heatedly declared that "this is not a job interview. This is hell ... To my Republican colleagues, if you vote ‘no," you're legitimizing the most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics."

Yet as much as Graham saw the hearing as a sign that the nation would descend into further dysfunction, with qualified people increasingly unwilling to serve their country, it's also true that the nation has been here before. Like this confirmation process, which led to accusations of sordid debauchery and unseemly discussions of Kavanaugh's sexual behavior, the 1991 confrontation between then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and his accuser, law professor Anita Hill, similarly appalled and fascinated the nation as senators and witnesses argued over pornographic films and pubic hair.

If you vote ‘no," you're legitimizing the most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics.

Now, as then, the country is painfully divided. Now, as then, people lament the establishment of new lows.

Now, as then, viewers could hear what they wanted to: Christine Blasey Ford was at once "a nice lady who's come forward with a hard story that's not corroborated" (Graham) and a hero who instantly "inspired and enlightened America," unleashing a torrent of stories of sexual assault (Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat).

Kavanaugh was cast as both a serial sex criminal and an innocent public servant whose family and reputation were shattered by scurrilous accusations.

In an ever more polarized society, the big stories rise up and are swiftly slotted into the nation's partisan map. White hats and black hats, liberal or conservative, red or blue — an accelerated culture reduces everything to binary choices.

But in that small Senate hearing room, reality insisted on its complex, contradictory nature. A woman who wanted dearly to remain anonymous became instead a historic figure, a new symbol of the culture's anguished struggle over trust, identity and sexual politics. A man who devoted his accomplished career to reaching the highest rung on the professional ladder instead became a mark of a sullied democracy and a deeply mistrustful citizenry, a nominee for the highest court in the land reduced to speaking on national television about when he lost his virginity and when, if ever, he had blacked out from drinking too much beer.

Ostensibly, the nine-hour hearing before the Judiciary Committee was the penultimate step in the confirmation of a justice who would assure President Trump"s legacy as the leader who solidified the conservative majority on the Supreme Court for decades to come.

But in recent decades, the battleground of Supreme Court confirmation has assumed a different purpose, morphing into a field upon which the nation plays out its most basic and emotional divisions, faceoffs over race, civil rights and the most intimate matters of childbirth, mating and relations between the sexes.

"It's not possible to separate what we're going through in this hearing from the cultural moment we're in, as women come forward with stories they've never told before," said Carolyn Shapiro, director of the Institute on the Supreme Court of the United States at the Chicago-Kent College of Law. "There have been ideological battles about the Supreme Court since the beginning. They just didn't take place on national TV."

Throughout the century since Senate hearings on nominees to the high court started to become regular events, public opinion has become a vital element in the ultimate decision about who gets confirmed. "The public's view does play a role and it should play a role," Shapiro said.

Though most such hearings have focused on legal philosophy and ideology, the process is inherently political, subject to each era's most volatile debates.

Christine Blasey Ford gets sworn in before testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee — Photo: Win McNamee/ZUMA

Even as Ford testified, the momentum of the #MeToo movement palpably accelerated. In congressional offices and newsrooms, women called message lines to offer their own accounts of assaults that had remained buried for years. On C-SPAN, callers unburdened themselves of stories of sexual violence, even as others declared Ford a liar. Outside the hearing room, women huddled together listening to the stream of testimony; those without earphones found themselves in a silence punctuated only by sniffles and an occasional sob.

But in the afternoon, perceptions and reactions flipped, as Kavanaugh, who had been relentlessly polite and solicitous in his earlier appearances before the committee, defended his reputation with a rhetorical blowtorch.

By turns angry, righteous, weepy and maudlin, the nominee at points seemed close to giving up his quest to sit on the highest court of the land. He ripped into the committee's Democrats, issuing partisan attacks, slamming the process as a "national disgrace" and "a circus ... You have replaced advice and consent with search and destroy."

His language, formal and cautious before Thursday, descended to gutter level as he accused Democrats of seeking "to blow me up and take me down" and blamed the attacks he has faced on "revenge on behalf of the Clintons."

Yet as angry as he was, Kavanaugh also presented a sympathetic side, telling of his 10-year-old daughter's desire to pray for his accuser, breaking up as he paid tribute to his father, appealing to the committee's sense of pathos as he envisioned a future in which his shattered reputation might prevent him from ever again teaching, coaching or judging.

As two people fought for their truths, senators on both sides concluded that maybe there was no way in this process to determine definitively what had really happened.

An accelerated culture reduces everything to binary choices.

Ford gave up her privacy and came forward out of a sense of "civic duty." Kavanaugh passed on a life of big money from a big law firm and devoted his career instead to public service.

Ford told about the sexual assault that scarred her adolescence with painstaking attention to what she could and couldn't recall, deploying science to explain the gaps in memory, showing emotion, but always with control and decorum.

Kavanaugh denied the sexual assault with anger, interruptions, aggressive language and a systematic recounting of events on a handwritten calendar that detailed his daily activities in high school three decades ago.

Some had seen this clash coming. "It's a big cultural moment," Trump said at his news conference Wednesday. "Nobody knows who to believe ... Honestly, it's a very dangerous period in our country ... When you are guilty until proven innocent — it's not supposed to be that way."

Yet even a traditional reliance on the rule of law and the presumption of innocence divides people these days. On the right, former Republican senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said Democrats "have weaponized the Me Too movement. There is a war going on here." And on the left, calls to believe women unconditionally when they tell of sexual assaults have unleashed a steady flow of such accounts.

In a society struggling with how to know whom to believe, Thursday cast little new light. At day's end, a Republican senator, Thom Tillis (N.C.) waved a card showing that someone had already purchased URLs for websites aimed at attacking any of several judges who might replace Kavanaugh as the nominee. Democrats continued to press for an FBI investigation into Ford's allegations.

Ford and Kavanaugh went home to security guards and death threats and children who could hardly comprehend what had happened to their parents.

"This has been one of the most shameful chapters in the history of the United States Senate," said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). He blamed "the partisan warfare of Washington."

But there was neither clarity nor consensus anywhere in a land where one side finds it hard to believe accusers — and the other finds it equally difficult to believe the accused.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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