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Americans Tune In To Watch Senate Testimony From Christine Blasey Ford And Kavanaugh


Eyes around the country today were fixed on the Senate judiciary committee to watch Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh testify. Ford is the California professor who is accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. And it was hours of high-stakes drama. With us now to talk about the theater of today's hearing is Ron Elving. He's NPR's senior editor and correspondent of the Washington desk. Welcome to the studio, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Audie.

CORNISH: So I don't want to make light of what we heard today and talk about it in terms of theater, but people are very much watching what you would call the performance of this - right? - because it's so high stakes. What did that mean for Christine Blasey Ford as she was the first to testify today?

ELVING: It was riveting. It was striking. She had a quavering voice at times but an unwavering certainty about her testimony. And that was clearly meaningful to many of the people watching probably tuning in to this whole procedure of the confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh for the first time for millions of people. Now, it's not what you'd call a star turn in a theatrical sense. More like when a character actor contributes in a movie or a play, a sense that this is a real person - a person who's not you but like you, reacting in ways you could imagine yourself.


CHRISTINE BLASEY FORD: I don't have all the answers, and I don't remember as much as I would like to. But the details that - about that night that bring me here today are the ones I will never forget.

ELVING: So vulnerable but persevering, seeming quite guileless - not the usual Washington show.

CORNISH: Thinking back to - what was it? - 1991 and the hearings of Anita Hill, giving her testimony for the Supreme Court nominee at the time, Clarence Thomas, how does this compare to that television performance? That was also a major television moment, right?

ELVING: Enormously and until 2 o'clock in the morning. Hill was lawyerly, calm, highly detailed in her testimony. She was, of course, a lawyer, is a lawyer, a law professor. Ford was more the scientist today, talking about the hippocampus instead of the memory.

CORNISH: And we should say her background as a psychologist...

ELVING: She is a psychologist...

CORNISH: ...Came into play here.

ELVING: ...And a Ph.D. in psychology - talking about the hippocampus, as I say, instead of the memory. But at the same time, she was not nearly so utterly steely as Anita Hill was. She was more spontaneous, certainly visibly emotional.

CORNISH: And was very plain spoken about this being an unusual moment and fearing testimony - right? - being in front of this crowd.

ELVING: Terrified was her word.

CORNISH: The person who was supposed to mitigate all of this was Rachel Mitchell - right? - the Arizona prosecutor, head of the sex crimes unit at the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, that Republicans brought in to do the line of questioning on their behalf. What was her role? How did she play it?

ELVING: Well, you know, it's typical for Hill committees to have some of their staff lawyers or outside counsel come in and handle a lot of the questioning under certain circumstances. We saw that in the Watergate hearings, and we saw it in Iran–Contra. But I cannot remember seeing a hearing of this importance where the majority entrusted - that is, the majority party on the Senate committee, the Republicans, entrusted their entire mission in a hearing to a person they didn't know until this week.

CORNISH: I want to ask also about Brett Kavanaugh. After that - there's a short break going on. But Kavanaugh enters, and it's the first time many Americans are seeing him speak at length, right? He was in this Fox News interview earlier in the week. But now he actually gets to answer questions, and what does he do with that time?

ELVING: Also very strong. He kicked off in a mode of anger in high dudgeon, seeing himself as the wronged party in all of this, not unlike Clarence Thomas in 1991 with that famous performance. Here's a little bit of Brett Kavanaugh today.


BRETT KAVANAUGH: My family and my name have been totally and permanently destroyed.

ELVING: But midway into his opening statement, he shifted gears. He was speaking of his daughter's reaction to these accusations from Dr. Ford.


KAVANAUGH: The other night, Ashley and my daughter Liza said their prayers. And little Liza all - 10 years old - said to Ashley, we should pray for the woman. That's a lot of wisdom from a 10-year-old.

ELVING: So I thought here of the various roles you would see played in the movies by say a Bill Paxton or a Bill Pullman, swinging between the fightback reflex and their own vulnerable dimension. And through most of this statement after that, he was clearly struggling with his own emotions until, at the end, he finished again in the defiant mode we had seen at the outset.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ron Elving. Ron, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.