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How gender and power played into the Kavanaugh testimonies

This week’s dramatic events in the Senate reflect a much larger debate across the country, about how we view gender and power amidst a profusion of high-profile sex abuse scandals. Amna Nawaz speaks with Marcia Coyle and Deborah Tannen about the contrast between this week’s hearings and confirmations of the past and how much tone and gender matter in these sensitive discussions.

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    The drama unfolding in the United States Senate reflects much of a larger debate that's taking place across this nation, how we see gender and power in the MeToo movement.

    It all adds up to unchartered waters.

    And Amna Nawaz examines how this week stands in sharp contrast to confirmations in the past.


    In key moments this week, it was the tone that mattered.

    Aside from the specifics of the sexual assault allegations, there were questions about Ford's composure compared to Kavanaugh's anger and if the same rules applied to both witnesses.

    The overt politics of the hearing were also a departure from precedent.

    Here to help make sense of it all, Marcia Coyle of "The National Law Journal," and Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University.

    Welcome to you both.

    Marcia Coyle, I would like to start with you.

    You have watched a lot of confirmation processes, tracked them over the years. A lot has been said about the demeanor of Judge Kavanaugh yesterday. Have you ever seen someone deliver speech, remarks, a response in a similar demeanor in past years?


    Amna, I think the closest that I have seen come to Judge Kavanaugh was Justice Clarence Thomas, when he went before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991.

    I was thinking last night as I was watching Judge Kavanaugh of the old cliche that the best offense — or the best defense is a good offense. And Justice Clarence Thomas in '91, he spoke first, before Anita Hill, and then he was given rebuttal time. And on his rebuttal time, he came out with the now — the phrase that has lingered in so many memories of that period, in which he called the confirmation process a national disgrace, but a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.

    And at that moment, you could tell that the atmosphere in the room and on the committee had changed.

    Last night, with Judge Kavanaugh, he didn't have race to use like Clarence Thomas did, but what he did have was partisanship. And he — his emotional, angry, often belligerent delivery focused on what he felt was a conspiracy on the left to search and destroy him. And he said that he saw this as revenge for the 2016 presidential election, his own ideology, and the work he did for the independent counsel who had investigated the Clinton White House. So this was being done on behalf of the Clintons.

    It was such a stark partisan kind of attack. And it is something that I have never seen before, not from a judicial nominee.


    Deborah Tannen, I would love to get your take on this.

    Now, you study language and how people use it, how it is perceived. Belligerent, angry, these were a lot of the words that were used to describe the way in which Judge Kavanaugh defended himself.

    How are you, as someone who studies this from an academic viewpoint, taking in what you saw yesterday?


    I would add to that so many aspects of his self-presentation that were completely out of place in that context.

    He was interrupting the senators. He was disrespectful to the senators, the Democratic senators. He turned the question back on them. I like beer. Do you like beer? What do you like to drink?

    The interruptions, the overlap, supporting along with them when he was supposed to answer a question, he really never answered the questions. But he never said, I'm not — sorry, I can answer your question. He certainly didn't say sorry about anything, but simply took the floor and went on repeating the things that he had said with his opening statement.

    And the contrast with Dr. Ford was really quite striking. She apologized when she had nothing to apologize for. And, by the way, I would point out that, for women, I don't think that really is an apology. It's just a way of being — taking into account the effect of what you're saying on the other person, so trying to be helpful.

    So, it's pretty routinized, women saying, I'm sorry. But you — and we did once hear Judge Kavanaugh apologize, to Senator Klobuchar. But it was after a recess. And you kind of had the feeling that maybe somebody pointed out to him he had gone a bit too far.



    Deborah Tannen, let me — sorry to interrupt.


    Yes. Sure.


    Let me ask you about something you just mentioned, the difference between the two testimonies.

    This is something we have heard a lot today. Was there a gender dynamic at play? Or were we just watching two different personalities make their cases?


    Yes, of course.

    It was almost like stereotypical representations of how women and men would be expected to present themselves and to behave. So, he was blustery. He was taking up as much talk space as possible. The anger is an emotion that is approved of in men and is often seen as positive in men.

    She could not be angry. She had many — much reason to be, but she didn't show anger. And it would be very unacceptable for a woman to show anger.

    So, everything about her self-presentation was self-effacing, deferential. What's interesting is that most people, men, as well as women, would be deferential to the senators in a setting like that.

    He threw all that to the winds, and was actually not — not only fulfilling our expectations of men, but not fulfilling our expectations of a person who was presenting himself before a body that was going to judge him. He was acting more like he was the judge.



    I would like to ask Marcia Coyle about the impact of that, because, as we know, this is part of an interview process, an assessment process, for a very big, important job.

    I want to show a graphic now that talks a little bit and shows quite clearly sort of the partisan nature of this process over the years. This is starting with John Paul Stevens in 1975, showing the Senate confirmation votes. Started back then a 98-0 vote. You see those margins growing tighter and tighter each year, until Justice Neil Gorsuch's vote last year. That was 54-45.

    Marcia, you mentioned this earlier, of course, the partisan nature of that vote. But Judge Kavanaugh himself delving into that partisan conversation, does that impact, do you think, how he does his job moving forward?


    Oh, moving forward?

    Well, I think only he can — if he is confirmed, he's the only one who will be able to tell if he brings — if he takes on to the court a bitterness, an anger towards any groups on the left, any parties on the left that would come before him.

    I can't answer that for him. I think, in terms of the court itself, that I'm — I think most of the justices know Judge Kavanaugh, like him, respect him. They have hired many of his former clerks for their own chambers.

    But I have to believe that there was a certain amount of cringing going on last night. I was thinking — she didn't say this in the context of the nomination hearings, but Judge Kagan recently said in a public conversation that the court — the court relies on — for its legitimacy that the American people believe that its decisions are made with a certain amount of integrity.

    So, any time there is a partisan cast to any cases that come to the court, they worry about this. And they worry that they will be viewed as a partisan institution.

    Now, I'm sure many people probably believe the court practices politics, not law. But, as she said, you have to look at the institution. And the American people do respect it because they still do believe that there is a certain amount of integrity in the decision-making.

    I think probably Justice — Judge Kavanaugh's comments last night, as well as his appearance on FOX television, which is associated with a certain political view, probably is a little worrisome in terms of how some people will view him if he is confirmed.


    And we will see if he is, indeed.

    Marcia Coyle, Deborah Tannen, thank you very much for your time.



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