LAKE WORTH, Fla. — “It looks like she’s crying,” said Hilda Darkins, 71, as the very long day began. Around her, a group of retirees were sitting around circular tables at the Mid-County Senior Center, watching TV. Several retirees were dabbing their own eyes. “Who can blame her?”
“She looks scared, and she looks nervous. But I think she’s telling the truth,” said Facey, a retired cashier. “She may have waited a long time to talk about it, but this is something that will never leave you, no matter what happens. You always remember it. You may not think of it every day, but it will always be with you, just like learning the ABCs. You never forget.”
Hours later, at a cigar lounge in Houston, retired police office Merg Meraia, 54, was drinking a Diet Coke and smoking an Ashton Monarch cigar. Brett M. Kavanaugh’s fiery defense, his voice cracking, convinced him that the Supreme Court nominee was being honest when he denied sexually assaulting Ford.
“If he was even-keeled, I would probably think that maybe we’re not hearing the entire truth about his past,” Meraia said. Instead, Meraia said, Kavanaugh’s reaction showed how deeply he’d been hurt: “The emotion is coming from him saying, ‘I want you guys to know that I really am a good person.’ ”
Thursday’s hearing of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee — called to investigate Ford’s allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court nominee — transfixed Americans like few events in recent history.
People listened on cellphone speakers in subway cars and doctors’ waiting rooms. The New York Stock Exchange got quiet. The Capitol’s hallways emptied. At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, so many people watched Ford’s testimony from their desks that the IT department warned they could overwhelm the network.
What they saw was a drama in two vastly different parts.
The second part — Kavanaugh’s emotional defense of his innocence and his reputation — was highly unusual in the staid history of Supreme Court hearings. It could have helped save his nomination or helped derail it, depending on how a few GOP senators react.
The first part — Ford’s testimony about the alleged assault, and the shadow it cast on her life — had a different resonance. People cried in airplane seats. They called into C-SPAN to tell their own stories of sexual assault.
For a few hours, Ford told a tale of private pain before a massive public audience. In her story, many viewers saw their own.
People watched to see a woman speak, without knowing yet who would believe her.
“16A: Crying. 14B: Crying. 17C: Weeping,” Ron Lieber, a New York Times columnist, wrote on Twitter from a flight headed from New York to Salt Lake City, listing the reactions as passengers watched the hearing on seat-back televisions. “I am one of the criers.”
As the hearings began around 10 a.m., some of the busiest places in the country fell quiet. At the New York Stock Exchange, Brad Smith — an anchor for the news site Cheddar — said normally frenetic traders were all watching the TVs. Phones rang in the background, unanswered.
The hearing reached into places that normally don’t bother with politics — at least, not so early in the morning.
In Houston, a retired pastor named Samuel J. Gilbert, 82, went to Jackson’s Barbershop for his weekly haircut. The hearing was on CNN. He said he was struck by the risk that Ford was taking.
“This lady, she really put herself on the line knowing that people don’t usually put a woman’s word over men,” Gilbert said.
In Washington — a city so odd that bars treat congressional hearings like bowl games — Shaw’s Tavern opened an hour earlier than usual, offering bottomless mimosas. But this was not a bowl game.
“We need to change the perception that just because you didn’t tell someone, it didn’t happen,” said Jamar Guy, a 35-year-old Washington resident. He was sitting at the bar, talking about his own sexual assault, years ago, by the son of a family friend. Guy said he vividly recalls the smile on his attacker’s face afterward.
“That stays with you,” Guy said. “Something always stays with you.”
In another part of Washington, two women sat in a therapist’s waiting room, listening to the hearing on tiny cellphone speakers. One reached for the other’s hand.
The same thing happened elsewhere: As Ford told her story, other people told theirs — to family, to strangers, to themselves.
At a cafe in Kansas City, Mo., Coleen Voeks sipped a glass of Redemption whiskey. She held it up to the TV, as a kind of toast.
Voeks, now 45, said she was raped in high school but never told anyone until recently. She felt guilt and remorse, as if she had done something wrong.
“I shouldn’t have gone to his house — I knew his family wasn’t there,” Voeks said. “I should have fought harder. You go through those things for years. What could I have done?”
She continued: “I was 17, and now I’m 45, and it’s taken a long time to get to the point that I realized, when I say no, no means no.”
At that point, the day was only half-over.
In the afternoon, Kavanaugh himself testified. He said he was entirely innocent of Ford’s charges — it could be that someone had assaulted Ford, he said, but that person was not him.
When Kavanaugh’s statement was done, he had convinced some doubters.
“I absolutely sympathized with her. I thought his rebuttal was equally convincing,” said James Boyle, 57, a director of Yale’s Office of Cooperative Research, in New Haven, Conn.
“What I’d really like to see is the FBI investigate,” Boyle said. He said that the senators on the panel are “utterly polarized” and their aim is not to find the truth.
Some who supported Kavanaugh also sympathized with Ford and others who say they have been victims of sexual assault.
Across the smoke-filled cigar lounge in Houston, Benjamin Guajardo, 52, was watching the hearing so closely that he missed the ashtray, spilling ashes onto a side table.
“I believe the Democrats are playing politics and distressing those who have been assaulted,” Guajardo said. “I take this seriously.”
At the bar of Trump’s Washington hotel, Barbara Beaman, a Virginia resident, said she thought Kavanaugh was “justifiably, incredibly furious,” during his testimony and that there was “no corroboration” for Ford’s allegations against him. She added that she thought Kavanaugh was respectful and showed “a lot of emotion,” especially when he talked about his family.
“To me, it’s quite obvious something may have happened with Dr. Ford, but it had nothing to do with Brett Kavanaugh,” she said.
Kavanaugh’s noisy appearance — following Ford’s quiet one — left some people unsure what to believe.
His part of the hearing was interrupted by bitter fighting and recriminations among senators, as Kavanaugh sat watching.
It slowly became a Washington spectacle, understood by a small audience and aimed at an even smaller one. In the short term, the only people whose reaction matters are the small group of GOP senators whose votes could put Kavanaugh on the court — or kill his nomination.
While they kept talking, the impact of the day’s first half continued long after Ford was done speaking.
At the National Sexual Assault Hotline, the volume of calls — already running high since Ford’s allegations became public — was much higher than normal Thursday.
“On a typical weekday, our queue of folks waiting to talk to one of our hotline staff might be six to eight people,” said Scott Berkowitz, chief executive of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, which runs the hotline. “Today, it’s gotten as high as 49.”
Many of those callers, Berkowitz said, had stories that mirrored Ford’s: They wanted to talk about events that had happened years before.
That women might keep such secrets seemed a given to many viewers.
In Milwaukee, a small group of people watched the hearing on television at a bar called Y-Not.
The TV above the bar showed Rachel Mitchell — an Arizona prosecutor brought in by Republicans — questioning Ford about her memories and a polygraph test Ford had taken about the allegations.
The crowd, which previously had been ambivalent about the hearing, turned strongly — and profanely — in favor of Ford.
“She’s not on [expletive] trial,” said Paul Chier, sitting at the bar, responding to the prosecutor’s questioning of Ford.
“Unfortunately, she is on trial, and she is [expletive] killing it,” answered Matt Earnest, three chairs down.
A bit later during the hearing, the TV showed Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), who said two-thirds of sexual-assault victims don’t report. Amanda Delsart, a bartender, yelled back at the TV.
“Because no one [expletive] believes them!” she said, the anger obvious in her voice.
Martin reported from Houston. Fahrenthold reported from Washington. Donna St. George, Robert Costa, Sarah Kaplan and Michael Brice-Saddler, in Washington; Karen Dillon in Kansas City; Steven Burkholder in New Haven, Conn.; and Dan Simmons in Milwaukee contributed to this report.