Television unites us, even when we wish it wouldn’t. It was predictably all but impossible to avoid coverage of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s questioning of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who alleges that Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were high school students in 1982. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and most of the major networks had their panels of experts and analysts seated and ready to speculate across multiple platforms more than an hour before the hearings were scheduled to begin. Only ABC (in New York, at least) chose to eschew the pre-game chatter for their regularly scheduled hour of Live! With Kelly and Ryan. Kevin Hart’s Night School is not going to promote itself, after all.
Then again, maybe the American Broadcasting Company had the right idea: When it came to the Kavanaugh hearing, more was definitely not better. As many of the day’s commentators pointed out, the wall-to-wall coverage wasn’t aimed at the “average American” — it was for the teeming, suited masses in D.C. and the “news junkies,” the Twitter town criers, and the schmucks who watch TV for a living. Most people, noted NBC’s Megyn Kelly, are just “going about their day,” because — and God help me, this might be both the most cynical and the most accurate thing said by a talking head all day — every one of us has already decided that this was either “a political hit job on Brett Kavanaugh that’s totally unfair” or that Dr. Ford “is a heroine for a #MeToo age.” At the end of the day, Kelly concluded, viewers will go to their respective corners to watch (or re-watch) snippets of the testimony on a news platform that offers an “affirmation of their worldview.”
I can only speak to the experience of watching all seven-plus hours (!) of these hearings from the perspective of my own “worldview” — that of a woman in 2018 America. The sudden shock upon first hearing Dr. Ford speak — her voice high and quavery, almost like a little girl’s. The way her voice broke over certain words and phrases: “His weight was heavy”; “vile and hateful names”; “civic duty”; “vulnerable.” Her academic turns of phrase — “the sequelae of the event”; “indelible in the hippocampus” — combined with an earnest, and very, very female, desire to be accommodating. “Does that work for you?” she asked Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley about taking a break. “I just wish I could be more helpful,” she repeated more than once. And the chilling, awful detail Dr. Ford revealed about how she insisted, decades later, on installing a second front door in her house so she’d have another means of escape from her own home. Any woman who has ever felt threatened, scared, or trapped in the presence of men — meaning, of course, every woman — felt that like a punch to the solar plexus.
For the first half of the day, the spotlight was also on another woman with a thankless job: Rachel Mitchell, the Arizona sex crimes prosecutor who questioned Dr. Ford on behalf of the Republicans on the committee. Polite and professional, no-nonsense and unflappable, Mitchell queried Dr. Ford on multiple topics — the location of her childhood home, her fear of flying, her conversations with Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, the polygraph exam she underwent in August — all the while gently (so gently!) trying to raise the specter of a Democratic conspiracy against Judge Kavanaugh. A little too gently for Fox News anchor Chris Wallace. “So far Rachel Mitchell hasn’t laid a glove on her!” he marveled during one of the breaks in testimony. While most of the commentators found Mitchell’s line of questioning — a puzzling mix of the hyper-specific and vaguely banal — less than effective, at the very least it spared Dr. Ford from the clumsiness of senators like Orrin Hatch, who referred to her during a hallway press huddle as an “attractive” witness. “That’s exactly why you don’t want these guys questioning her,” sighed an exasperated Dana Bash on CNN.
Five hours later, when Judge Kavanaugh finally made his opening statement, the tonal shift in the room was nothing less than seismic. “This confirmation process has become a national disgrace!” bellowed Kavanaugh, his voice as loud and assured as Dr. Ford’s was soft and shaky. He veered from palpable anger to tearful despair and back again, accusing the Democrats on the committee for seeking “revenge on behalf of the Clintons” while weepily recalling his 10-year-old daughter’s sweet, heartbreaking suggestion that her family should “pray for the woman.”
It was a display of outrage matched (perhaps surpassed?) by the senators who proceeded to question him, though many directed that animus at each other — as when Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina had what can best be described as a partisan coronary. “What you want to do is destroy this guy’s life!” he raged at his Democratic colleagues. “Boy, y’all want power! God, I hope you never get it.” The reaction to Kavanaugh’s fury-filled opening statement and Graham’s apoplectic mid-hearing meltdown served as a case study for Megyn Kelly’s “worldview” theory: On Fox News, anchors called the judge’s statement “forceful and emotional.” CNN’s Symone Sanders, meanwhile, said to her it sounded “unhinged.”
As the day wore into night and the hearings devolved further and further into a series of partisan snipe-fests about who asked for an FBI investigation when, the gravity and ugliness of the proceedings began to take its toll on the NBC News team. “I feel like something is permanently broken in our politics,” said Andrea Mitchell gravely. “I feel sick to my stomach.”
Across the table, Meet the Press host Chuck Todd wondered, “Where do we go tomorrow?”
“Nuclear winter,” replied Today’s Savannah Guthrie, a response I’m guessing she did not mean to speak out loud — though it was one I thoroughly understood. After spending the day watching what was either the self-immolation of our entire democracy or, you know, Thursday, it was easy to feel emotionally annihilated. But then I took a minute to think about Dr. Ford, and how she responded in the face of her own nuclear winter. We may not know where we will go tomorrow, but at the very least I know where many of us will be November 6.