Christine Blasey Ford, an ordinary person with no national TV or Washington experience, a woman who wanted to remain anonymous but instead now has one of the most recognized and polarizing names in the country, is going to walk into a Senate hearing room Thursday and seat herself at a table with a microphone positioned to pick up every word.
She will face TV cameras, telephoto lenses, and the entire Senate Judiciary Committee and confront pointed questions about a drunken party she claims had an enormous and terrible effect on her life, about a night when she alleges Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her.
How does a regular person even begin to prepare for that?
We know how Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court nominee, is readying himself. A Washington Post report over the weekend captured an intense scene in which White House aides — playing the roles of members of the Judiciary Committee — “dug into his private life, particularly his drinking habits and his sexual proclivities.”
But what about Ford? She’s a research psychologist in Northern California, and it’s likely that the bulk of her public speaking has come in noncombative academic settings.
“I am here today not because I want to be,” her written testimony, released Wednesday, reads. “I am terrified. I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school.’’
So far, no reports of her practice panels have leaked out, but experts in the “murder board” industry — as the practice sessions are called because the questions are so tough — described what she’ll face and how to handle it.
A Washington lawyer who regularly prepares clients for congressional testimony likened hearings to a play, where the principal roles are assigned to the senators, and the witnesses play a part, either being lectured or applauded.
“This is an interesting hearing because there are two plays going on simultaneously,” the lawyer said. He requested anonymity because his firm has a large Supreme Court practice. “In one play she is the heroine, and in the other she is the villain. That is a very difficult place to be. You’ve got to be on offense and defense at the same time.”
Add to that the high political stakes and potential for spectacle; the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings, when male senators tore into Anita Hill, are still considered a blemish on the Judiciary Committee.
Hearings can last four or five hours, the lawyer said. “It’s as much an intellectual challenge as a physical endurance test, and everything about you matters, from how you appear to what you wear to your tone in response to questioning.”
The big questions, he predicted, will be about her memory and her motives. “What does she not remember and why does she not remember it?” and “How does she indicate her certainty that Brett Kavanaugh is the person that she engaged with in this encounter?”
On Tuesday, news broke that the Judiciary Committee would bring in a female attorney to question Ford — a move that will deny Democrats potentially unflattering footage of an all-male Republican panel questioning a woman about alleged sexual assault.
But whether talking to senators or a female attorney, Andrew Gilman, chief executive of CommCore Consulting Group in Washington, D.C., says he would advise Ford to remember the “three C’s.” Be clear, confident, and credible.
“The minute you walk into the hearing, all eyes will be on you even though you have not said a word,” he said. “Look pleasant. Have a smile on your face, but not a cheshire grin or a smirk.”
The biggest mistakes, especially when there’s media coverage, he said, are smirking and repeating a negative characterization contained in a question.
He gave an example: “Dr. Ford, do you have a bad memory?”
Dr. Ford: “I don’t believe I have a bad memory.”
The media coverage: “Dr. Ford denies she has a bad memory.”
The better way to respond is, “With respect to my memory . . . ”
Despite any temptation to pop a Xanax, don’t, Gilman said. “Anything that dulls your senses is not appropriate,” he said. He recommends clients exercise and stretch ahead of time — and once they’re in public, smile.
Jerry Weissman, a corporate presentations coach and founder of Suasive, in San Bruno, Calif., likens congressional testimony to martial arts. “You deflect, you don’t fight,” he said.
In martial arts, he said, a skilled practitioner can compete with a superior opponent by using dexterity rather than might. “Bruce Lee, a diminutive kickboxer, became an international star by virtue of his uncanny ability to prevail over multiple and mightier armed opponents using only his flying feet and hands.”
Thursday’s hearing is in front of the 21 members of the Judiciary Committee, but Ford’s audience is much larger, said Kenneth Berman, a partner at Nutter McClennen & Fish LLP in Boston and author of “Reinventing Witness Preparation: Unlocking the Secrets to Testimonial Success.”
“It’s also the constituents to whom those senators are accountable, so she’s speaking in the court of public opinion. If she comes across as if she is hiding the truth, or doesn’t maintain eye contact, or claims not to understand a question that everyone else in the room understands, that could interfere with her likability,” he said, “and anything that interferes with likability could interfere with credibility.”
With so much at stake — and the emergence of other women accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct, including one during his college years at Yale — who has the harder job Thursday, the accuser or the accused?
“There’s no easy answer,” said Matthew Herrington, a partner at Steptoe & Johnson LLP, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm, who regularly prepares clients for congressional testimony.
“Every reason that Dr. Ford was reticent about coming forward has come to fruition. Like Anita Hill,” the law professor who detailed allegations of workplace sexual harassment against Thomas, “she is going to be permanently marked by her status as a victim in this situation. Whatever happens, there will be wide swaths of people who paint her as a hero or a villain.
“She’s going to be a cartoon, one way or the other.’’
As for Kavanaugh, even though he’s more experienced, he’s also got a lot to lose. “You’ve got to think that he was already reaching out for the trophy, and to be back is like Groundhog Day, but much worse. Now he isn’t answering questions about Roe v. Wade but his personal life.”
Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.