Room 226 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, with its walnut paneling, green marble accents, forest-green floriated carpeting, and vaguely Third Reich-ish pilasters and wall sconces, is not unlike other congressional hearing rooms in its staid formality. And like those others, room 226 features pops of color to appeal to the TV audience. Here, atop the elevated semicircular rostrum, sit mustard-yellow leather chairs for the Judiciary Committee’s twenty-one members. On the carpeted floor below, a witness table faces the dais, above which floats a wooden E pluribus unum eagle seal.
Quite an imposing setting for a job interview. Yet on Thursday, September 27, 2018, Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh each offered testimony there as part of Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. In the days leading up to the hearing, building staff placed a small desk – made of mahogany, I’ll guess – in front of the Republican side of the dais. And on the morning of the big event, a special GOP “female assistant,” prosecutor Rachel Mitchell, sat at that table, often forcefully gripping its sides, as she tested Blasey Ford’s recollections of her alleged high-school encounter with the nominee.

Wary of the optics of eleven white men (some of whom adopted notoriously adversarial positions during the 1991 Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings) interrogating a sexual assault victim, Mitchell’s presence served both to ensure that the hearing would be “respectful and professional... and depolicitize[d]” and to provide a rhetorical buffer for the Republican crew. While the Senators perched a few feet above the proceedings, Mitchell met Blasey Ford and her lawyers at ground-level – table-to-table, E pluribus feminae, unum to E pluribus feminae, unum.
After lunch, Kavanaugh took the table, alone and enraged. The Republican senators grew restless, eventually bypassing Mitchell to speak directly to their man. The dais became a pulpit to histrionically decry Kavanaugh’s unjust treatment. The only visible women were those Democratic senators to whom Kavanaugh condescended, the agonized family members and friends who sat behind him, a few dispassionate observers and, well, Alyssa Milano.
Twenty-seven years earlier, Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas sat at a table draped in kelly green, which added an inappropriate air of levity to the tense proceedings. Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh rested their nervously clasped hands and Coke cans on bare wooden tabletops, underneath which a black skirt concealed tangled wires and quaking knees. And while Hill confronted an all-male, all-white panel, Blasey Ford faced a more diverse group, including four women and three people of color – all Democrats. Yet several reporters noted that the Republican cohort was most directly in Blasey Ford’s line of sight. Their wooden faces matched the wooden walls and furnishings, all emanating the privilege and polish of elite institutions that have long prioritized white patriarchal interests.

Mitchell and her little desk strewn with loose-leaf paper were telegenic accents, mere ornaments to the entrenched political edifice. Yet white patriarchal power would not be undone by women seated at skirted tables or tiny desks. In 2018, as in 1991, the semiotics of the room foretold the hearing’s conclusion. There would be no splintering of a great man’s polished record, no obstructions to his inevitable ascent.

NOTES ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓

Image: Saul Loeb / POOL / AFP

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