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Powerful testimony on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON – “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two … I was underneath one of them while the two laughed.”

Indelible in my hippocampus, too, and, I suspect, in the minds of everyone who listened to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. I have built my professional career on words, and the capacity of words to convey information and argument.

But Thursday’s session reaffirmed the compelling power of personal testimony, not only in providing information but in assessing competing narratives. Long before the advent of livestreamed hearings, the framers of the Constitution embedded this crucial insight into the 6th Amendment guarantee that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”

The fundamental wisdom of the Constitution’s approach was on display Thursday. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was confronted with the witness against him – one of them, anyway – and it was devastating.

Although Ford was not a perfect witness, she came off as both unshakeable in her conviction that it was Kavanaugh who assaulted her and anything but eager to thrust herself into the political maelstrom that has ensued. While President Trump railed against Democrats for orchestrating a “big fat con job” against Kavanaugh, Ford did not seem either conner or conned. To listen to her account of that summer night in Bethesda was nothing short of heart-breaking.

More than a quarter-century ago, Anita Hill persuaded those who were willing to listen with her law professor seriousness and her natural reserve. Ford’s demeanor was different, and for all her girlhood in the capital she seemed far more naive and unschooled in the ways of politics than Hill.

Part of the power of her testimony came in the disconcerting blend she presented: a surprisingly girlish voice that evoked the 15-year-old teenager trying to avoid being seen with her mom in the Potomac Village Safeway, melded with the scientific language of cognitive psychology.

Partly it was the stricken look on Ford’s face. Partly it was her winsome helpfulness. “Does that work for you?” she asked Committee Chair Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, when he suggested a break at 12:40. “I’m used to being collegial.”

“I would like to be more helpful about the date,” Ford told Rachel Mitchell, the Arizona sex crimes prosecutor questioning her on behalf of Senate Republicans.

Mitchell’s effectiveness was undermined by the herky-jerky nature of the proceedings, shifting in five-minute increments between her courtroom style questioning on behalf of Republicans and testimonials to Ford’s bravery by Democratic senators. Mitchell nibbled at the edges of Ford’s story, with questions that highlighted discrepancies between Ford’s account and her therapist’s notes.

But the questioning was mild by comparison to the skeptical interrogation of Hill 27 years ago, with suggestions that she was fantasizing and assertions she had committed perjury.

Back then senators were confronted between the quiet insistence of Hill’s account and the ferocious, angry denial from Thomas, who famously denounced the “high-tech lynching.”

I had expected Kavanaugh’s response to be more measured, more respectful. But he came out swinging.

The confirmation process had turned into a “national disgrace,” Kavanaugh lectured senators. He painted himself as the victim..

But it was also to be left with this fundamental question: One witness, Ford, wanted to see additional investigation to help reconcile the conflicting accounts. The other, Kavanaugh, repeatedly refused the invitation to ask for the FBI to reopen its probe. That, too, is an indelible takeaway from as searing a day as this city has witnessed in many decades.