Opinion: In Supreme Court hearings, years of grudge politics boil over

This is not a trial. We constantly were reminded of that as the Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh escalated into a bitter partisan brawl.

But the reality amounted to two trials. The credibility of California university professor Christine Blasey Ford was being judged for her “100 percent” certainty that federal judge Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they were in high school in 1982. At the same time, Kavanaugh’s credibility was being judged as he totally denied the accusation.

As with the similarly divisive dispute between now-Justice Clarence Thomas and his accuser, law professor Anita Hill, in 1991, I expected the testimony to end in a tie, and that’s what we got.

I believe Ford. The Ph.D. psychologist delivered highly credible testimony, loaded with sordid details, yet was also persuasive in her honesty about what she did not remember.

Yet I could not help but believe Kavanaugh, too. Maybe his memory was faulty, I supposed, because of the length of time and his love for beer, which he repeatedly professed to the senators. Ford had alleged that he was “stumbling drunk” at the party.

When Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, asked whether his drinking ever caused him to forget events, his voice turned a tad arrogant and defensive. “You’re asking about blackout,” he said. “I don’t know; have you?” He later apologized to her during a break.

Kavanaugh’s toughness sounded as though it was aimed at an audience of one, President Donald Trump, who reportedly was angrily disappointed by Kavanaugh’s earlier mild-mannered sit-down with Fox News. Before the committee, Kavanaugh’s attitude turned full Trumpian, charging Democratic conspiracies and using one of Trump’s favorite put-downs in calling Democratic behavior in earlier hearings “a national disgrace.”

That line was picked up by his fellow Republicans. After hours of sitting mostly mute while Arizona prosecutor Rachel Mitchell did most of the questioning, Republicans led by Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina let loose with condemnations of the hearing as an exercise in character assassination.

It was more than that, but years of grudge politics boiled over in the room. Republicans, including Kavanaugh, made references to Democratic attacks that brought down the nomination of Robert Bork in 1987 and almost stopped Thomas in 1991. But Democrats are just as furious, with good reason, over the intentional delay of President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, until Obama’s turn ran out and the seat was filled by President Trump.

At the close of the day, as with the Thomas-Hill hearings, we were left with a he-said-she-said drama, with everyone left to pick their favorite witness and narrative. On Friday, the committee voted 11-10 along party lines to move the nomination forward. But GOP leaders agreed to delay a floor vote for a week to allow the FBI to investigate the sexual assault allegations. Maybe that will bring some clarity.

Beyond that is the question of how the nation will fare in the wake of this latest heated example of Washington’s polarized politics. The day that began in civility and ended in angry finger pointing will be remembered as bitterly as many remember the Thomas-Hill hearings.

This time, after the beer-stained “Animal House” scenarios of Kavanaugh’s and Ford’s prep school years, we are left with a question that CBS News reporter Steve Portnoy put to Trump in an earlier New York news conference: “What’s your message to the young men of America?”

Trump dodged that question with a partisan defense of his nominee. But I like the answer given later by satirist Samantha Bee on her “Full Frontal” show: Teach them about “consent.”

Writes for Tribune Content Agency.