Twice in recent weeks, we’ve gotten to watch hotly anticipated Congressional hearings, in which mostly male Republican members got the chance to grill powerful women who had upset them. In both cases, those members of Congress ended up looking like damn fools. How’d that happen?
There are lots of good reasons why neither the #Benghazi squad yelling at Hillary Clinton nor the House Oversight Committee yelling at Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards worked out particularly well for Congress. Some of it stems from the fact that both hearings were show trials, a purely partisan effort to show the folks back home how erectly principled their conservative principles are. But there’s also a visual, theatrical reason: watching a body composed predominantly of white men shout at, interrupt, and harangue a dignified, composed woman has always been a bad look, and in 2015, it’s one the public will no longer accept.
We’ll spare you the mind-numbing indignity of watching the entire 11-hour ordeal, but as a case in point for how yesterday’s hearing was a particular flaming dumpster, let’s watch this long but instructive exchange between Rep. Jim Jordan and Clinton. Jordan has long accused Clinton of pushing a “false narrative” on the Benghazi attacks, saying she knew that day they were terrorist actions, but falsely tried to attribute them to spontaneous protests in response to an anti-Muslim video.
For someone who just wants to get to the truth, Jordan spent much of his time interrupting Clinton, spinning out a lengthy conspiracy theory that Clinton deliberately hid what she knew about the attack.
In one of the most-Vined moments of the hearing, Clinton tried a few times to respond, then eventually just sat back and just looked at him with a weary smile while he sputtered:
Then, when he finally piped down, she went in, calmly and deliberately, while Jordan looked at his notes, at the audience, at his lap, anywhere but at Clinton. She started by icily offering to send him a copy of her memoir so he could familiarize himself what she’d actually done in the days and weeks following the attack. Then, and not for the last time that day, she accused him of impugning the reputations of military and intelligence personnel who responded and investigated.
“I think the insinuations that you are making do a great disservice to the hard work that people in the State Department, the intelligence community, the Defense Department, the White House did during the course of some very confusing and difficult days,” she informed him. And then, after laying out again a timeline of what she’d done and when: “I’m sorry that it doesn’t fit your narrative, Congressman. I can only tell you what the facts were.”
The New York Times editorial board called the Republican members of Congress “spiteful” and their grilling “pointless.” The Washington Post called it “unfortunate,” saying it “elicited little new information” while giving Clinton the chance to mount a “stout” defense of her conduct following the attacks. Even Fox News had to call her “visibly measured.”
Basically, Clinton’s enemies gave her a chance to display a gravitas befitting the leader of the free world for eleven hours straight. She didn’t slip, she didn’t stutter, she didn’t lose her composure. Even people (like some on staff) who aren’t Clinton fans could see plain as day that she looked presidential as hell.
When Clinton got mad, she did it in just the right way, always a tricky thing for a woman in the public eye. Here’s her response, very late in the evening, to Congressman Trey Gowdy (whose sweaty upper lip and weird insistence on yelling about Sidney Blumenthal’s emails help send the hearing fully off the cliff and into Clinton’s win column).
Clinton grew visibly annoyed when she felt that Gowdy was disparaging Admiral Mike Mullen, vice chair of the Accountability Review Board who investigated the response to the Benghazi attacks. Gowdy suggested that Mullen maybe leaned on a witness not to testify, and Clinton shut that shit down.
It was all reminiscent of Cecile Richards’s September appearance before the House Judiciary Committee. Particularly, Clinton’s calm but stern response harkened back to the moment where Richards humiliated Rep. Jason Chaffetz by pointing out that he was using a bogus graph to try to insinuate that Planned Parenthood is little more than an abortion factory.
Or when Rep. John Duncan asked her “Surely you don’t expect us to be easier on you just because you’re a woman?”
Richards didn’t blink. Instead, she smiled serenely and conjured up her late mother, the beloved Governor Ann Richards. “Absolutely not,” she said evenly. “That’s not how my momma raised me.”
Congress, as a whole, operates in these instances with an almost comically poor sense of self-awareness. It’s the same inattention to optics and common sense that allowed them to hold a hearing on birth control featuring zero female witnesses. It’s the same reason why they hardly ever call women as witnesses at all, for that matter.
In 1991, Anita Hill testified about future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ aggressive and disgusting sexual harassment. Her inquisitors were an all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Panel. Thomas was appointed without much delay, and a nationwide survey found 2-1 that Americans found him more credible than her.
Congress operates as though Anita Hill happened yesterday, as though the same social attitudes still hold true. When they fall all over themselves in humiliating attempts to attack people like Hillary Clinton and Cecile Richards — people who are smarter, tougher, and more media savvy than they’ll ever be — you might say they’re asking for everything they get in return.
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