This is what we saw. More important, it’s what we felt — the anxiety and nervousness of this Palo Alto University psychology professor, who testified Thursday in the hearing involving her and Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh. Paradoxically, her vulnerability was her strength. Ford was deeply relatable, and that is what’s so powerful and frightening for the Republicans and for Kavanaugh, whom Ford accuses of sexually assaulting her.
Ford’s nearly unbearable vulnerability unfolded in real time. She looked entirely, painfully human, unpolished, unguarded, by turns endearing, appealing, likable — “I’m used to being collegial,” she said, breaking into a rare smile at one point — and also susceptible to harm.
“It was gut-wrenching to listen to her,” said Jake Tapper on CNN. This was true not so much because of Ford’s words, devastating as they were, as she recounted a night 36 years ago. Her testimony was difficult because with all of her involuntary, subtle and physical cues to her emotional state, she made us feel her pain.
This wasn’t the behavior we’re used to seeing from a witness in a congressional hearing, even from an alleged victim of sexual misconduct. Back in 1991, Anita Hill — the woman who accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing — was calm, thoroughly polished and pulled-together. The picture of poise. And yet, Hill was attacked, ultimately found by the committee members to be unreliable.
Ford? Her hair wasn’t staying put, her glasses were smudgy, her voice was small and scared.
We can’t help but vicariously feel someone’s emotional distress. It’s one thing to read about what Ford had to say; it was quite another to watch her speak, watch her obvious discomfort in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The distress of others disturbs us. I could hardly breathe watching her struggle with her breathing, at times taking a gulp, swallowing hard or licking her lips. In that cramped, crowded room, closed in by a semicircle of representatives and staffers, she was entirely ill at ease.
And yet, she showed us another view of strength. It’s not always big and forceful, or smoothly controlled. Raw vulnerability, as we saw in Ford, can be more effective — or, if you like, less easy to ignore — than pain that is hurled at us with fire, or submerged under a cloak of composure.
You couldn’t help but empathize when she spoke with a crumbling voice. And yet, she summoned strength with it, giving testimony even though her body was fighting her.
By contrast, Kavanaugh was all force and vigor. He took command of the witness table, spreading out his papers, arranging the microphone. In his opening statement, his voice was loud, rising to anger, almost yelling. Here was emotion of another kind, emotion that pushes us away rather than drawing us close.
He had the demeanor of someone used to performing in a competitive sphere.
“You’ll never get me to quit,” he told the committee.
Kavanaugh softened and teared up when he spoke about hearing his 10-year-old daughter say one evening as she was praying: “We should pray for the woman.” He added, “We intend no ill will” to Ford.
I wanted to tear up with him, but that proved to be only a momentary show of his own vulnerability. He went back to being combative, even at times overly hot, inappropriate and rude. He challenged Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) on her questions about whether he’d ever drunk so much his memory was affected.
“Have you?” he said.
After a break, Kavanaugh clearly realized he had overstepped and he apologized to Klobuchar. But the whole “circus,” as he described it, left me feeling that he wasn’t open to questions. It was difficult to sympathize with him when he was putting up such a hard front.
Ford, on the other hand, looked as if she had nothing to hide. She didn’t just say that — she demonstrated it. She was simply an ordinary person, in unfamiliar territory, taking a risk out of what she said was a sense of duty, muddling through a confusing process and taking us with her, breath by breath.
“She’s authentic,” said Rick Santorum, the former Republican senator from Pennsylvania, on CNN during a break in the testimony. But earlier, as one of the CNN panelists reminded him, he’d said Ford was being used “as a pawn in a bigger chess game.” His response:
“Sometimes pawns can take kings.”