Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Mitchell's due as an expert technician

Now that we are blessedly exited from the Kavanaugh hoopla, we are beginning to see some more reflective pieces coming out about the drama and shenanigans. I suspect we are eventually going to end up with an even more caustic view of the proceedings.

Among these post-hearings pieces, I am seeing a few that are beginning to take notice of some of the calmer and more refined, but also more devastating actions by some of the key players. I am thinking of Susan Collins' very fine summary speech justifying her vote.

I am also thinking of Rachel Mitchell's performance as questioner of Christine Blassey Ford. In the heat of the moment, when the gladiatorial blood was inflamed, Mitchell was heavily criticized in some quarters for not landing a mortal blow on Ford.

A careful reading of the transcripts even then, though, showed a careful evidentiary approach and master tactician with a strategic view whose approach provided the basis for a substantial reevaluation of the nature of Ford's testimony as reflected in Mitchell's final report to the Judiciary Committee.

While Lindsay Graham was making emotional (though, in my view justified) statements about the perfidy of his fellow committee members and Kavanaugh was making a full-throated defense of his reputation, I suspect that in the long run, Mitchell's approach may be more devastating.

As a logophile, admirer of expertise, and as a devoted empiricist, I respect Mitchell's masterful job which I don't think was as appreciated as it should have been.

Neo's piece is the first one I have seen which provides a detailed summary of one strand in the testimony. From Watch the trap being set for Ford by Mitchell by Neo. What reads as a seamless flow was in reality all chopped up and can only be later reconstituted as Neo has done to see just how devastating Mitchell's approach was in eliciting an immensely damaging admission.

Recall that Ford early in the debacle claimed that a fear of flying prevented her from coming to Washington, D.C. to provide testimony. A fear that was debilitating. Fear of flying is a common phobia and a perfect foil in negotiating with the Judiciary Committee who were at pains to avoiding seeming insensitive. It put Ford and her team in the driver's seat in the negotiations and bolstered her image as a damaged victim.

Mitchell's strategic vision, reassembled here by Neo, changes Ford's brand dramatically. From bullied, damaged victim of a terrible crime, she comes off as a privileged global jet-setter, flying all over in pursuit of her hobbies and whims, putting on a convenient charade when negotiating with the Judiciary Committee. It is not simply a matter of lying about a fear of flying. It is a revelation that starts one down a different path. If this was all a charade at the very beginning for negotiating leverage, then perhaps Ford's testimony was entirely a performance. A sophisticated performance orchestrated by many parties.

As Margot Cleveland said:
But the problem for Ford is not that she doesn’t remember everything: It is that everything she remembers changes at her convenience.
Everyone initially saw a sympathetic victim. On the right, many were convinced that Kavanaugh was definitely not the perpetrator but were also convinced that Ford had indeed suffered some trauma at the hands of someone. Mitchell revealed a sophisticated manipulator who might never have been a victim at all. She also revealed a person living a life of wealth, privilege and indulgence of exotic travel. No simpering, damaged victim here.

From Neo:
Mitchell was extraordinarily low-key in her own presentation. I believe that is a very studied and practiced role for her, meant to disarm and put the interviewee at ease. Mitchell seems friendly, but here she is carefully and calmly asking a series of questions to which she almost certainly knows the correct answers, although she’s not sure how Ford is going to answer. This basic line of questioning also had to be one that Ford anticipated being asked by Mitchell, so no doubt Ford had prepared some basic answers in advance. But it didn’t go quite the way Ford had hoped.

At the start of the clip, a very friendly, seemingly relaxed Mitchell asks how Ford got to Washington, a question Ford had to know would present her with a conundrum. How could she possibly explain that, after having put out word that she was afraid to fly?

Ford answers in her little-girl voice, “In an [here we get a slightly abashed smile from Ford] airplane.” Mitchell then asks her more directly about her fear of flying, a question Ford had to have been expecting, and Ford responds that she was [emphasis mine], “hoping to avoid getting on an airplane, but eventually was able to get up the gumption [to fly to DC] with the help of some friends.”

This is a very carefully crafted answer. In it, Ford attempts to convey the idea that she is indeed afraid of flying and therefore was telling the truth about that when she had asked for the delay, but that in certain rare and very pressing circumstances, with a lot of help from her friends, she can manage to muster up the courage to fly. She’s indicating that she’s emotionally vulnerable, and that if Mitchell or anyone else pushes too hard she could crumble, but that she is also strong when needed, although only with the help of friends and after great effort. Thus she is vulnerable yet strong when needed, and dependent on others to be kind to her and help her out. She’s asking Mitchell (and the listeners) to be gentle and kind with her, too.

At that point I think Ford believes she’s established exactly what she set out to do.

Shortly afterward, in the same gentle, non-threatening manner, Mitchell asks, “In fact you fly fairly frequently for your hobbies and you’ve had to fly for your work, is that true?” Note that “hobbies” comes first. If Ford answers “yes”—and she pretty much has to, because she knows there are probably records of this—she sounds frivolous, as though she’s ready to jet off at a moment’s notice, for a lark.

So Ford fastens on the “work” portion of the question, and answers “Yes, unfortunately.” emphasizing her reluctance and fear again. Then there are questions from Mitchell about possible work Ford’s done in Australia, and Ford answers that, although she worked for a company based there, there’s no requriement to go there and she’s certainly not been there. With a little smile she adds, “No, I don’t think I’ll make it to Australia!” The clear implication is that Australia is way too far for her to travel, and Mitchell responds by doing another friendly thing, smiling and agreeing, “It is long.” Ford smiles, too. Again, I think she believes she’s dodged that bullet, which is what Mitchell wants her to believe.

And later Mitchell says, without raising her voice or changing her friendly affect, that in Ford’s CV she lists as interests: surf travel, Hawaii, Costa Rica, South Pacific Islands, French Polynesia, and asks whether Ford has ever been to those places. The listener can’t help but contemplate how far away those destinations are—almost as far as Australia, a place Ford has just denied traveling to (and a place Mitchell almost certainly already knew that Ford had not traveled to but asked about anyway because Mitchell wanted to elicit the denial for contrast). And Ford says quite simply: “Correct.”

Correct. She’s flown to all those places. And they are vacation spots, too. It dawns on the listener that this women doesn’t just fly now and then, when she works up the gumption. This women is a world traveler, for adventure and fun. Nothing forced her to go to any of these places, and of course she wouldn’t hesitate to go to Australia too if she needed to or wanted to.

At this point Ford realizes how bad that sounded, and she regroups. Intensifying her little-girl affect, she says that it’s “easier for me to travel that direction when it’s a vacation”—which really makes no sense at all in terms of fear of flying. And what difference does the direction—east or west—make? At this point Ford’s body language also gives her away. She does a little flutter with both hands as though to say “Oh, whatever; I guess that wasn’t my most effective answer,” and then she shakes her head “no” almost imperceptibly.
View the video Neo attaches which shows the exchanges between Ford and Mitchell.

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