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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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