The State Department, historically, has been the ultimate bastion of the WASP male establishment, and the first two public witnesses in the impeachment inquiry were the perfect embodiment of that history. They were the diplomats from central casting: George Kent, dapper in his waistcoat and bow tie, offering that “there has been a George Kent sworn to defend the Constitution continuously for nearly 60 years, ever since my father reported to Annapolis for his plebe summer.” William B. Taylor Jr., former West Point, Army infantry officer, speaking with the authoritative tones of the voice-of-God anchorman.
Even now, even after a series of female secretaries of state, we are still developing our mental maps of what powerful women look and sound like; female is not our default image of the diplomat. But there was Yovanovitch, with her scarf and tasteful gold necklace, her quiet voice and no-nonsense haircut, offering what seemed an even more compelling picture of the Foreign Service under siege. The mild spareness of her answers amplified the emotion underneath.
“It’s very intimidating,” she said of Trump’s tweet, not needing to elaborate. The president had every right to replace her, she told Ohio Republican Brad Wenstrup, “but what I do wonder is why it was necessary to smear my reputation.” At another point she offered, “This has been a very painful period.” Yovanovitch had every right to be angry and to let that show, yet she radiated restraint instead.
“If you were not moved by the testimony of Marie Yovanovitch today, you don’t have a pulse,” Fox News’ Chris Wallace observed at the close of the first round of questioning. The fact of Yovanovitch’s gender undeniably quickened that pulse — and Trump’s mid-testimony tweet only quickened it further.
Was it a coincidence that the president contained himself during the testimony of Kent and Taylor but erupted at Yovanovitch? “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” Trump tweeted, his illogic betraying his fury. “She started off in Somalia, how did that go?” Is Trump the bully who goes after those he targets for their vulnerability — or is it the opposite: that it was the very force of Yovanovitch’s testimony, compared with the male counterparts who preceded her, that triggered the president?
We have become used, sort of, to seeing powerful women testify, cloaked in the armor of a Cabinet position or other indicia of authority. Think Hillary Clinton at her Benghazi marathon. And we have, on the other end of the power spectrum, the memory of women testifying not in an official capacity but in an intensely personal one: first Anita Hill, then Christine Blasey Ford.
Yovanovitch occupied a middle sphere — between power and powerless, senior government official and Washington outsider. In that zone, she was contained and controlled, even as Democrats at times seemed to be trying to tip her over the edge of tearfulness.
“I really want to know how it felt to have your reputation sullied,” prompted Alabama Democrat Terri Sewell. “Today we’ve seen you as this former ambassador of this 33-year veteran of the Foreign service, but I want to know about you personally and how it has affected your personally and your family.” Yovanovitch demurred. “I’m a private person and I don’t want to put all that out there, but it’s been a very difficult time,” she said. Sewell pressed again, “How has it affected your family?”
Yovanovitch shook her head, ever so slightly. “I really don’t want to get into that, but thank you for asking.” She nodded, then put her hand on her chin and pressed her lips together. This ambassador — “the woman” — was not going to give Trump or anyone else the satisfaction of seeing her cry.