How We Got to Now

This ugly week in Washington has been a long time coming

Pool via CNP/Shutterstock

On the day before Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I was told that I wouldn’t be allowed in the gallery because Ford “didn’t want a circus,” and Playboy was among the many outlets designated to watch the ensuing not-circus on a television in an adjacent room.

Instead, I watched Ford’s testimony in the basement cafeteria of the Senate. The room was crowded with other reporters, Hill staffers and the stray congressman. All of them were captivated by what was unfolding on the television screens—forks were on plates and phones buzzed, unanswered, across the tables.

It was clear, for the first time in a long time, that Washington was taking it on the chin, that the entire country was watching our ineptitude. Many of those present in the room were crying.

In D.C., we are used to the narrative constantly shifting on what our lawmakers are doing, and we’re frequently the last to realize that the people “out there” are angry. Ford’s testimony was one of those moments that grabbed us by the throat and reminded us that this is not normal. It’s not normal for congressional hearings to be prime television, but they are in the Trump administration—the testimonies of James Comey and Mark Zuckerberg convinced the nation to turn her eyes to a hearing room on Capitol Hill. But none of the recent circuses was as raw and emotionally taxing on viewers as the testimony of Ford.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been reading the constant comparisons to the Anita Hill hearings—Time magazine even ran a photo of Clarence Thomas on its cover with the caption “What’s Changed?” At the heart of those comparisons was the notion that Anita Hill’s testimony marked a new low in Washington as she was attacked by a crew of male Senators, among them Joe Biden, who seemed intent on belittling her. We still haven’t forgotten it, and the Ford hearing will be recorded as another one of those days when Washington was truly an ugly place.

It was clear, for the first time in a long time, that Washington was taking it on the chin, that the entire country was watching our ineptitude.

The ugliest aspect of this week was the obvious partisanship on display during the Ford hearings—the unwillingness to even consider working together. The usually reserved Sen. Lindsey Graham went on a tirade against the Democrats seated across from him, and Brett Kavanaugh blamed the circus on “the Clintons.” On Friday morning, Democrats stormed out of the hearing room.

We’ve been on the road to this ugly day for a long time, since 2013 when Majority Leader Harry Reid first used the “nuclear option”—allowing nominees to be confirmed with a simple majority of votes rather than the 60 needed previously. The path became more defined in 2016 when Mitch McConnell refused to hold a vote on Merrick Garland. And finally, when Kavanaugh decided to do a sit-down interview with Fox News.

A more saddening aspect is the blind mentality of “political victory at all costs” that has pervaded the atmosphere. At a cocktail party on the night before Ford’s hearing, I asked a Trump official if the Brett Kavanaugh allegations were normal, and she spat back “that’s the way us ‘80s kids were” as if it were a finishing blow. A lot of this probably has to do with Donald Trump, whose never-back-down mindset has seeped into the rest of Washington—even now into the Supreme Court where we can expect Judge Kavanaugh to be confirmed.

There marks the final blow of the abnormality of this week—the new partisan nature of the Supreme Court. The nation’s top court was one of the few bodies in Washington mostly unpolluted by the ugliness of partisan politics. Kavanaugh himself recognized that in his original testimony, saying “The Supreme Court must never be viewed as a partisan institution. The Justices on the Supreme Court do not sit on opposite sides of an aisle.”

But when he came before the senators on Thursday he made it clear that he doesn’t have much respect for the nonpartisan nature of the court. During one telling interaction, he was blatantly insulting to Sen. Amy Klobuchar—refusing to answer her question about his drinking and instead asking her about her own alcohol use.

And so we are left to face the question that we seem to face at an increasingly frequent pace: Where do we go from here? Washington significantly lessened itself in the Kavanaugh hearings, and it’s getting harder and harder to believe in this town. The Washingtonian, wrote that it “felt as if almost all the air had been sucked out of the atmosphere.” This was one of the worst weeks in the recent history of American politics—that was the one thing that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle could agree on.

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