Watching the Kavanaugh hearings was one of the most intense, wild, exciting and ultimately exhausting experiences I have ever had with TV and politics.
But I also have to say that at the end of more than eight hours of being totally engrossed by questions and testimony from Professor Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, I was left feeling totally empty and angry about how little I had learned from all that time in front of the screen.
What happened Thursday with the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on allegations by Ford that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when she was 15 years old is a perfect snapshot of what our politics have become in the age of Trump: media-saturated, highly emotional, dangerously polarized and absolutely devoid of clarity or values.
We moved another step Thursday toward our civic life becoming mainly a media spectacle as this Supreme Court nomination might have come down to who performed better in TV terms — that is who evoked more of a visceral response in the viewing audience.
Cable TV loves emotion, but after tearful statements and answers by Ford and Kavanaugh and then an angry tirade by Sen. Lindsey Graham that dramatically altered the arc of the proceedings, I wondered whether the temperature on the tube was getting too hot even for the rancorous world of cable news.
Emotional roller coaster doesn’t even start to capture the visceral intensity of that viewing experience. I have not been that riveted to the screen or jacked up emotionally by a TV hearing since Watergate, when White House Counsel John Dean started to roll on President Richard Nixon and it looked like the president might actually have to pay for his sins.
Not even the Clarence Thomas hearings with Anita Hill as the accuser affected me as the Kavanaugh hearing did.
Ford’s testimony was extraordinarily compelling. She spoke in a quiet voice that sounded vulnerable but also brave and firm. Twenty seconds into her opening statement, you believed you were listening to someone who had been wounded badly but had regrouped and made herself into the accomplished professor we now saw before us. She seemed utterly credible — and she made me feel her pain.
And hour into the questioning, I thought the nomination of Kavanaugh, who was scheduled to testify later in the day, was doomed.
Part of the problem was the decision by the Republican majority to bring an assistant county attorney from Arizona to serve as a substitute questioner for all the older, male, white, GOP members of the Judiciary Committee.
No one in Washington will ever forget the optics of Hill looking up at all those old, white men seated above her in 1991. Seeing even an echo of that in 2018 would only remind millions of viewers how strong a hold patriarchy still has on the culture — even in this revolutionary #MeToo moment.
But with the questioning apportioned in alternating five-minute segments between Republicans and Democrats, the questioner, Rachel Mitchell, could get absolutely no continuity going. She couldn’t come near to building a narrative that questioned Ford’s version events.
Viewers wanted a TV lawyer building a storyline they could understand, but they got someone asking picky questions that seemed to go nowhere. You could imagine Donald Trump, the great audience of one to whom most of the Republican effort was geared, with smoke coming out of his ears as he watched her.
The first half of the day was a disaster for Kavanaugh and the Republicans, and the second half didn’t start much better as a highly emotional Kavanaugh repeatedly choked up or broke into tears as he read his opening statement.
It was understandable to get emotional as he talked about the toll on his family, but he started to cry at one point talking about how he used to lift weights in the evening at a friend’s house when he was in high school.
And the partisan rancor of his claims was stunning. He described the allegations against him as part of a left-wing conspiracy that included the revenge of the Clintons. (He had been on the staff of Special Prosecutor Ken Starr who investigated Bill Clinton.)
Cable news TV likes heat and combat, but this was way over the top for someone who wants to be a Supreme Court justice — over the top in both temperament and partisan politics. The conspiracy talk sounded like something you would expect from Alex Jones, not the swing vote on the Supreme Court.
But just when things looked darkest in TV terms for the Republicans, Graham took his five minutes instead ceding it to Mitchell, and he came out breathing rhetorical fire.
“What you want to do is destroy this man,” he said to the Democrats. “I hope the American people can see through this charade.”
Then, addressing Kavanaugh, he said: “If you’re looking for a fair process, you came to the wrong town at the wrong time, my friend. … This is not a job interview. This is hell.”
Calling the discussion by Democratic questioners about what Kavanaugh wrote in his high school yearbook “crap,” Graham told his Republican colleagues, “If you cast a no vote against this man, you’re legitimatizing the most despicable thing I have seen in all my time in politics.”
And one after another, the Republican senators on the panel ditched Mitchell and took their five-minute turns to apologize to Kavanaugh for what they now characterized as the vicious, partisan attack on him. Graham reset the terms of the hearing. He was now the hottest emotionally in the room, and Kavanaugh and the Republicans on the committee fell into their groove.
After that, the Republicans were acting like winners and the pundits who were so sure during the noon break of Kavanaugh’s demise were wondering what had happened in the last 90 minutes or so of the proceedings.
The case for Kavanaugh wasn’t intellectually any better than it had been four hours earlier after Ford’s compelling testimony ended. But on cable TV, it’s not about logic or intellect. It’s about feelings. And Graham’s performance made Kavanaugh’s outrage feel more righteous than over the top.
Brett Kavanaugh might have shown bad judicial temperament as he argued with Democratic senators and exhibited a highly partisan outlook in talking about the Democratic “smear” campaign against him.
But, in the end, he gave a hot TV performance that was likely to please our TV president..