Two people were at the center of the high drama in Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing: a terrified accuser, her voice cracking with emotion, and a defiant Supreme Court nominee, angrily denying that he had anything to do with an alleged attempted rape decades ago.
Only two. But the whole cast of the #MeToo movement hovered, unseen, over the hearing.
In a sense, actresses Ashley Judd and Rose McGowan were there, accusing mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. And Gretchen Carlson, whose 2016 lawsuit began the demise of her Fox News boss Roger Ailes. And so were all the figures who populate the movement’s recent and hugely consequential history. Fallen VIPs and politicians, from Matt Lauer and Leslie Moonves to Roy Moore and Al Franken. And the investigative reporters who broke the stories. But especially the women who shared their stories.
And certainly present, in the same sense, was President Donald Trump, many times accused by women and a fierce defender of other powerful accused men.
The hearing was not only a referendum of sorts on #MeToo but also on public trust in institutions — including the news media and Congress — and on truth itself.
“Yet another case study in the toxic disregard for truth that has taken hold in Trump’s Washington,” was how Michiko Kakutani, author of “The Death of Truth,” characterized the moment to CNN’s Brian Stelter.
And yet there was reason to believe that truth is not dead, even if it doesn’t prevail here.
For anyone not cut off from reality, there was truth in Christine Blasey Ford’s shaky voice as she spoke of girlhood acquaintances she referred to as “Brett” and “Mark,” as her 15-year-old self might have done.
There was the ring of truth in her answer about what she’ll most remember from the assault she alleges: “The laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two. And their having fun at my expense.”
There could have been a deeper search for truth in an FBI investigation of this and other credible allegations that have surfaced in recent days, or in an insistence on the questioning of “Mark” — Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s friend Mark Judge, a witness to the alleged assault.
But how much real interest was there in pursuing truth?
So much of the #MeToo movement’s consequences have been decided, indirectly, by what reasonable and informed people might be expected to believe.
That calculation may have been filtered through the decisions of network advertisers, or political constituents, or legal proceedings, but truth has mattered.
But are enough people — including Republican senators — reasonable, informed and, above all, open-minded enough to absorb credible reality when it’s presented to their eyes and ears, and then to act on it, even at this late date?
And how much does it matter that the president is known for his unapologetic and almost constant misstatements and lies?
Whether that standard — the court of reasonable public opinion — holds sway now wasn’t immediately clear on Thursday afternoon.
Given the terribly flawed process — and the Republicans’ stubborn refusal to perform the necessary due diligence — there could be no incontrovertible certainty. That will be a lasting shame.
Truth is available — just as it has been throughout the past two tumultuous years.
But whether, in tribal America, truth is desirable is another matter.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist.