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Historian Reflects On What Kavanaugh And Blasey Ford Testimony Says About The U.S.


The wrenching and angry language of today's hearing along with its diametrically opposed accounts riveted many Americans. But even in this high-stakes showdown larger issues loom, like what such moments say about our country, its political evolution and how it conducts its business. Historian Jill Lepore has been thinking about all of this. I spoke with her earlier today and asked first what other events might compare in scale to this moment.

JILL LEPORE: I think we might think about it as representing the intersection of two different trends. One is the changing visibility of the Supreme Court and its changing accountability to public opinion, and the other is kind of the history of politics as spectacle. And they - those two intersect pretty I would say violently at this particular moment in time, but they are actually different strains.

CORNISH: Talk a little bit about the spectacle aspect.

LEPORE: Well, the spectacle aspect - I mean, beginning with television, we have the McCarthy hearings in 1954. There's a kind of riveting attention to what's going on in American politics and in the federal government that television is able to concentrate attention on in the age of, you know, broadcast network television. I think if you jump ahead in time, you get to the Watergate hearings. I actually think that the - where the - where that spectacle first intersects with the Supreme Court is of course with the Bork hearings in 1987 which, since Robert Bork had been involved in the Watergate scandal, I think are maybe in some ways best understood as the last of the Watergate hearings.

CORNISH: Another aspect of this is sexual conduct, right? It used to be that Americans didn't openly talk about the sexual conduct of powerful people. In the context of what you're talking about, where does that intersect with what we're seeing now?

LEPORE: Well, we see a real change in how people talk about sex on a public stage. I think you get a wholly new, concentrated attention to it of course with the Anita Hill testimony at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991. What's strange about that moment and one of the things that we forget about what it means then to bring these matters of sexual power and sexual violence to a national stage before a live television audience is that that happens because women don't achieve political equality.

I mean, the Anita Hill testimony in 1991 takes place in the aftermath of the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment. So in some ways, that public stage becomes the place where women are trying to continue that fight for equal rights. And it's a very difficult and I think extraordinarily painful place to wage such a battle.

CORNISH: To bring it forward, how has the #MeToo movement influenced public reaction to this conversation?

LEPORE: I think the #MeToo movement has polarized public conversation. What's so explosive about the testimony in the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing is that a long-view history of the Supreme Court has been forgotten. And we now I think almost seem to believe that the public opinion should decide who is confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. That's not in fact the arrangement under the Constitution. We don't decide - we don't elect judges. That's a thing that some places do do.

We have lifetime appointments. And the judge's private lives are supposed to be kind of kept from public view because the judges are not supposed to be accountable to public opinion. We are - in some ways I think have so failed to fully address the matter of women's equality before the law that we are now using the Supreme Court nomination process as a place to have that conversation. And it changes what that process is about.

CORNISH: What do you think makes this a kind of watershed moment, and do you think we'll be looking back at it the same way that we look at the Anita Hill hearings or other big what you call spectacles?

LEPORE: Well, I think those spectacles have an S, right? I mean, the intensity with which they are witnessed and are part of our moment-by-moment experience of a media culture ends very quickly. So the problem with spectacle is it's just - it's like a shooting star. What we're doing in terms of the Supreme Court structurally in insisting that it's accountable to public opinion - I mean, think about what Mitch McConnell said with the Merrick Garland appointment. He said, we're not going to fill this seat because the American people get to decide our next Supreme Court justice. And I think constitutional scholars went, what? Like, (laughter) the American people don't decide our next Supreme Court justice. That's absolutely not what the Constitution says. So that's a whole different constellation of the stars. That's not a shooting star. That's the change that will last.

CORNISH: In the end, do you feel like while it may be a spectacle that it is somewhat transparent, and is there any I guess positive aspect to that?

LEPORE: Well, you know, I was on the train when the testimony started today, when Christine Blasey Ford first spoke. And I walked up and down the aisle as I was just going to get a drink. And there were a few women on the train who were watching with their headphones on. And all of us were completely shaken by it. I think it was very upsetting to see, to hear about her experience.

And I felt for a moment then how important and courageous what she was doing was in this - you know, in that moment. But I think there's something important by way of pulling back from this day-to-day, this appointment, that appointment and thinking structurally about what really is going on with the Supreme Court and its relationship to the public and how a new media environment is reshaping it. I think there's reason to be concerned about that.

CORNISH: Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper professor of American history at Harvard University. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LEPORE: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANNIBAL OX SONG, "STRESS RAP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.