WASHINGTON – In the end, everything – every blasted thing – gets sucked into the polarization black hole, never to emerge again.
That now includes the U.S. Supreme Court. It is not, of course, that this process has never been political before. But it has never been more clearly a function of contending culture war narratives.
Progressives saw the #MeToo movement come to dramatic life: a highly credible woman calling a powerful man to account for sexual abuse, and that man responding (as one New Yorker headline put it) with “a grotesque display of patriarchal resentment.” To those on the left, Judge Brett Kavanaugh is a living symbol of violent aggression toward all woman by his (presumed) opposition to Roe v. Wade. What they saw during the judiciary committee hearing – the angry defense of prep school values – confirmed all their pre-existing beliefs.
Conservatives saw the Democratic/media complex attempting to destroy a respected nominee on the basis of a thin charge, sprung as a transparent political ploy. They cheered and tweeted South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s accusation that the process was an “unethical sham.” And what they saw of Democrats on the judiciary committee – Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat from California, denying obviously true charges of leaks from her staff; Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, the Democrat from Rhode Island, treating high-school yearbook abbreviations like the Enigma code; Sen. Cory Booker, the Democrat from New Jersey, stroking his own moral superiority in a manner close to obscene – confirmed all their preexisting beliefs.
The result of these conflicting interpretations was a complete breakdown in process, civility and decorum. But everyone, it seems, found the enemies they wanted and got the ideological boost they sought.
This, however, is not what made the hearing memorable. In the midst of general and typical dehumanization, we saw two humans laid bare. And the experience is impossible to make sense of.
Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was credible and compelling, precisely because she did not play the role of a cause-oriented crusader. She focused on her own story, simply told. There was a mix of fragileness and resolution in her presentation that indicated authenticity. She explained the experience of sexual abuse with more emotional clarity than I have ever heard – the helplessness, panic and fear. She conveyed the unique and lasting damage of this kind of exploitation – how a few moments on a summer night at the age of 15 can haunt a whole life. Following her remarks, a conservative friend wrote to me: “It’s virtually impossible to believe she invented this story.”
And Ford seemed utterly convinced of Kavanaugh’s guilt.
Then came Kavanaugh. I was told by people involved in preparations for his initial hearing in early September that the process had been thorough and orderly, with questions and proposed answers in thick briefing books. This time, there was little help from others, on the assumption that these were questions that only Kavanaugh could answer.
Kavanaugh was credible and compelling, precisely because he was genuinely, completely, almost uncontrollably outraged. The Kavanaugh I worked with in the Bush White House was known for his calm, careful demeanor in the midst of West Wing chaos. In his latest testimony, Kavanaugh was clearly pushed past patience and restraint. He acted like an unjustly accused man, facing the loss, not just of a job, but of the reputation and life built over three decades.
Kavanaugh gave us an emotional window into the human cost of some public controversies. An accusation of sexual assault is not like a political disagreement. It is enough, as Kavanaugh roared, to destroy the trust on which a life is based – the trust given a teacher, the trust given a coach, the trust given a judge. This kind of charge is not like losing a limb. It is more like a poison that effects the whole body. If the accusation is false, it makes sense for a nominee to treat his political tormentors with contempt.
And Kavanaugh seemed utterly convinced of his own innocence.
What to make of all this? Well, it is easy for everyone to return to their political corners – as most certainly will. Can we really ignore the accusation of sexual assault from a credible source? But what is the precedent created by destroying a man based on the accusation of one person, concerning an event decades ago?
I support a period of further investigation. But I doubt it would clarify much. Or matter much. Of one thing we can be certain: The outcome will run down political, not ethical, lines.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post. Reach him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2018 The Washington Post Writers Group